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Microsoft Corp. sought to assure consumers Friday that it did not insert a secret backdoor in its popular Windows software to allow the U.S. government to snoop on their sensitive computer data.

The sensational charge of a quiet alliance between Microsoft and the U.S. National Security Agency came after a Canadian programmer stumbled across an obscure digital "signing key" that had been labeled the "NSA key" in the latest version of Microsoft's business-level Windows NT software.

An organization with such a signature key accepted by Windows could theoretically load software to make it easier to look at sensitive data -- such as e-mail or financial records -- that had been scrambled. The flaw would affect almost any version of Windows, the software that runs most of the world's personal computers.

Microsoft forcefully denied that it gave any government agency such a key, and explained that it called its function an "NSA key" because that federal agency reviews technical details for the export of powerful data-scrambling software.

"These are just used to ensure that we're compliant with U.S. export regulations," said Scott Culp, Microsoft's security manager for its Windows NT Server software. "We have not shared the private keys. We do not share our keys."

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