A disturbing new report from Reuters alleges that Yahoo Inc developed a program last year to spy on all incoming emails looking for a certain phrase as part of a classified directive from the NSA or FBI. The information was leaked by two former employees and claims that "hundreds of millions" of emails were scanned.
It is unclear if Yahoo actually found or handed over any information acquired through this program. This is believed to be the first time that a company has scanned all incoming emails for information instead of looking at stored emails or a specific number of accounts. It is also unknown if other email companies were approached with this request or if it was exclusive to Yahoo Mail.
Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers' incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the matter.
The company complied with a classified U.S. government directive, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said two former employees and a third person apprised of the events.
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.
The ACLU has condemned Yahoo's actions as unconstitutional and illegal.
Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, had this reaction:
“Based on this report, the order issued to Yahoo appears to be unprecedented and unconstitutional. The government appears to have compelled Yahoo to conduct precisely the type of general, suspicionless search that the Fourth Amendment was intended to prohibit.
“It is deeply disappointing that Yahoo declined to challenge this sweeping surveillance order, because customers are counting on technology companies to stand up to novel spying demands in court. If this surveillance was conducted under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, this story reinforces the urgent need for Congress to reform the law to prevent dragnet surveillance and require increased transparency.”
The Electronic Freedom Foundation said there was no possible way to justify scanning all incoming emails, and referred to privacy concerns as "quite staggering."
“The fourth amendment and attendant privacy concerns are quite staggering,” Crocker said. “It sounds like they are scanning all emails, even inside the US … the fourth amendment protects that fully. It’s hard to see how the government justifies requiring Yahoo to search emails like that; there is no warrant that could possibly justify scanning all emails.”
This is incredibly disturbing. The Fourth Amendment is still very much a concept and part of the United States Constitution, and while there's no way the founding fathers probably could have imagined email, the act of spying on every single email looking for a certain phrase or "character combination" seems to be the definition of an unreasonable search. Yahoo should have never complied with this absurd and unconstitutional request.