In-brief: Yahoo created a special program to scan through hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts for certain keywords at the behest of the U.S. government, Reuters reports.
Joseph Menn over at Reuters has a huge story today about what appears to be a bulk scanning of email messages by Yahoo, dating back more than a year.
Yahoo acceded to a government request to create a special program to scan through hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts. The Reuters story cites “two former employees” of Yahoo and “a third person apprised of the events.” Yahoo did not deny the existence of the program, but said in a statement that it complies with all legal requests from the government.
From the story:
It is not known what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified.Reuters was unable to determine what data Yahoo may have handed over, if any, and if intelligence officials had approached other email providers besides Yahoo with this kind of request.
Surveillance experts said this represents the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to a spy agency’s demand by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time.
It sparked an immediate response from privacy advocates. NSA Whistleblower Edward Snowden linked to the Reuters piece via his Twitter account with the comment “Use @Yahoo? They secretly scanned everything you ever wrote, far beyond what law requires. Close your account today.”
Chris Soghoian, the principal technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union commented on the importance of whistleblowers to uncovering government surveillance. “Whoever leaked the existence of Yahoo’s secret NSA bulk-scanning program to @josephmenn, thank you. Seriously,” he wrote.
The extent of cooperation between large technology firms and the U.S. government on matters of surveillance isn’t known. Companies like Apple have resisted government requests to decrypt customer data. Facebook and other leading Internet firms have called for the government to reform its surveillance laws and practices, clarifying what kinds of data can be collected and how, and increasing transparency around requests.