Techies vs. NSA: Encryption Arms Race Escalates

Encrypted email, secure instant messaging and other privacy services are booming in the wake of the National Security Agency's recently revealed surveillance programs. But the flood of new computer security services is of variable quality, and much of it, experts say, can bog down computers and isn't likely to keep out spies.

In the end, the new geek wars -- between tech industry programmers on the one side and government spooks, fraudsters and hacktivists on the other -- may leave people's PCs and businesses' computer systems encrypted to the teeth but no better protected from hordes of savvy code crackers.

"Every time a situation like this erupts you're going to have a frenzy of snake oil sellers who are going to throw their products into the street," says Carson Sweet, CEO of San Francisco-based data storage security firm CloudPassage. "It's quite a quandary for the consumer."

Encryption isn't meant to keep hackers out, but when it's designed and implemented correctly, it alters the way messages look. Intruders who don't have a decryption key see only gobbledygook.

A series of disclosures from former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden this year has exposed sweeping U.S. government surveillance programs. The revelations are sparking fury and calls for better encryption from citizens and leaders in France, Germany, Spain and Brazil who were reportedly among those tapped. Both Google and Yahoo, whose data center communications lines were also reportedly tapped, have committed to boosting encryption and online security. Although there's no indication Facebook was tapped, the social network is also upping its encryption systems.

"Yahoo has never given access to our data centers to the NSA or to any other government agency. Ever," wrote Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in a Nov. 18 post on the company's Tumblr blog announcing plans to encrypt all of its services by early next year. "There...

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