Microsoft helped US govt spy

It has also emerged that Edward Snowden is to apply for temporary asylum in Russia.

US National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, an analyst with a US defence contractor during an interview with the Guardian in Hong Kong. Picture: AFP

SAN FRANCISCO & MOSCOW - Microsoft Corp. worked closely with US intelligence services to help them intercept users' communications, including letting the National Security Agency (NSA) circumvent email encryption, the Guardian reported on Thursday.

Citing top-secret documents provided by former US spy contractor Edward Snowden, the UK newspaper said Microsoft worked with the Federal Bureau of Investigations and the NSA to ease access via Prism - an intelligence-gathering program uncovered by the Guardian last month - to cloud storage service SkyDrive.

Microsoft had previously said it did not provide the NSA direct access to users' information. On Thursday, it repeated that it provides customer data only in response to lawful government requests.

"To be clear, Microsoft does not provide any government with blanket or direct access to SkyDrive, Outlook.com, Skype or any Microsoft product," the company said in a statement on its website.

Facebook Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft had all publicly urged US authorities to allow them to reveal the number and scope of the surveillance requests after documents leaked to the Washington Post and the _Guardian _suggested they had given the government "direct access" to their computers as part of the NSA's Prism program.

The disclosures have triggered widespread concern and congressional hearings about the scope and extent of the information-gathering.

SNOWDEN SEEKS TEMPORARY ASYLUM

Meanwhile, it has emerged the former intelligence agency contractor will seek temporary political asylum in Russia, according to human rights groups that met him on Friday.

The Kremlin told Snowden, who has been on the run since disclosing details of US electronic surveillance programmes, that he should refrain from criticising the United States if he wants refuge in Russia.

Participants in a meeting with human rights groups at Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport, where he has been stranded in the transit area since June 23, said Snowden would seek to travel on to Latin America.

"Snowden is serious about obtaining political asylum in the Russian Federation," said Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Kremlin lawmaker who attended the meeting.

President Vladimir Putin's spokesman repeated earlier conditions that Snowden should stop harming the interests of the United States if he wants asylum.

"We need to check this information, but as far as we know, he considers himself a defender of human rights and a campaigner for democratic ideals," spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters.

Nikonov said that this message had got through.

"He said it would be easy for him to fulfil this requirement," Nikonov told reporters. He added that Snowden did not consider his actions to be harmful to his country.

Peskov said he was unaware of a formal request for political asylum from Snowden. Separately, a Russian official said Snowden was expected to submit one.

A grainy picture of Snowden taken by one participant, with legal assistant Sarah Harrison to his right, soon surfaced on social media and news sites. He wore a grey jacket and looked in good health.

Snowden, 30, had not been seen in public since his arrival, and Russian officials have shown increasing impatience over his stay. But it has also become clear that Snowden has no clear route to a safe haven from Moscow.

Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have offered Snowden asylum, but he has not revealed his plans.

Washington, which seeks to arrest Snowden on charges of espionage in divulging details of secret US surveillance programmes, has revoked Snowden's passport and pressed nations not to take him in or help him travel.

"In recent weeks we have witnessed an unlawful campaign by officials in the US Government to deny my right to seek and enjoy this asylum under Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights," he wrote earlier to the rights groups.

"The scale of threatening behaviour is without precedent," read the letter, a copy of which was posted on Facebook by Tanya Lokshina, deputy director of the Moscow office of New York-based Human Rights Watch.