Did the U.S. Government Read Your Email?

▪ Yahoo! began scanning the email of hundreds of millions of users since April of 2015
▪ US Government threatened Yahoo! with a $250,000 per day fine unless they complied
▪ Emails were scanned in real time using software developed by Yahoo! email engineers

Credit: Flickr / Franco Folini / Creative Commons

Sunnyvale, California — Yahoo Inc., one of the world’s largest email services, has been spying on its customers’ emails.

The California-based multinational technology and Internet company has admitted to scanning users’ emails in compliance with requests from U.S. government intelligence agencies. Those agencies may include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the National Security Administration (NSA).

Yahoo! corporate headquarters in Sunnyvale, CA. Credit: Google Maps

In 2015, the company allegedly built a secret software program that searches all incoming Yahoo emails for information — based on specified characters — requested by intelligence officials.

The request was part of a classified U.S. government demand by either the NSA or the FBI or both. As a result, hundreds of millions of Yahoo accounts were scanned. This is the first known incident of a U.S. Internet business complying with a request to spy on its customers by scanning incoming email messages.

"Sicherheit" by Gruenewiese86 is licensed under CC BY-ND
Credit: Flickr / Olli Henze / Creative Commons

It is not yet known exactly what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that Yahoo was scanning for a set of characters, such as a phrase or an email attachment. It is also not yet known what data or kind of data Yahoo passed to government agents, if any.

It is further not known whether U.S. officials approached any other email services and whether those providers complied with the request. However, it is said to be highly probable that the NSA or FBI did indeed approach other companies. Because NSA spying demands typically go through the FBI, it’s difficult to determine which agency wanted the surveillance.

In the wake of these accusations, Yahoo issued an official statement which read, in part,

“Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States.”

The company has refused to make any additional comment about the charges.

Meanwhile, the NSA passed along requests for interviews or statements to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. That office also refused to comment.

Image by peterbwiberg from Pixabay
Credit: Pixabay / PeterBwiberg / Creative Commons

In the past, American telephone and Internet service providers have passed bulk customer data to U.S. intelligence officials. However, this is reportedly the first time a provider has complied with a demand of such a large scope. It is also the first known instance of a provider secretly developing a customized software program to spy on customers per a government request.

Albert Gidari, an attorney who has dealt with telephone and Internet surveillance cases for over two decades and now teaches at Stanford University, said “I’ve never seen that, a wiretap in real time on a ‘selector’,”. As reported by Reuters, “A selector refers to a type of search term used to zero in on specific information.”.

Gidari continued,

“It would be really difficult for a provider to do that,”

Both Google and Microsoft insisted on October 4, 2016, that they had not searched their customers’ emails.

A Google spokesperson commented,

“We’ve never received such a request, but if we did, our response would be simple: ‘No way.’”

A Microsoft representative released a similar statement:

“We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo.”

However, Microsoft refused to say whether it had received such a request from the U.S. government

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