Yahoo accused of scanning users’ emails for US intelligence

5 Oct 2016

Yahoo is embroiled in a fresh scandal over claims it complied with US intelligence data requests. Image: Carsten Reisinger/Shutterstock

Embattled internet giant Yahoo has found itself ensnared in another scandal, where it is being accused of scanning hundreds of millions of users’ emails for the NSA and FBI.

In recent weeks Yahoo, once the internet’s darling, was once again in the headlines for all the wrong reasons: a 500m-account data breach dating back to 2015.

But now that unfortunate episode is about to be eclipsed by an even bigger scandal: it has been alleged that the internet giant Yahoo has been complicit with US intelligence agencies like the FBI and NSA in scouring and scanning users’ emails.

Future Human

Three years ago, Edward Snowden ignited a storm when he revealed that the NSA was spying on users’ internet usage. All the tech giants moved fast to batten down the hatches and assure users that their data was safe and encrypted. All except Yahoo, it seems.

Yahoo stumbles into another scandal

Reuters broke the story last night that Yahoo built a custom software program last year to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information that US intelligence officials were searching for. It cited three former employees and a fourth person familiar with the situation.

This is a far cry from the principled stand that Microsoft took when it fought and won a court case against the FBI, over email stored on servers in its data centres in Dublin.

“We were standing up for an important principle: it is important to establish that no government can reach into other people’s email in other parts of the world,” Microsoft president and legal counsel Brad Smith said at an event in Dublin on Monday.

Spies like us

But Yahoo, on the other hand, is reported to have complied with a classified US government demand, scanning millions of Yahoo Mail accounts on behalf of the NSA.

This is understood to be the first case to surface of a US tech company agreeing to an intelligence agency’s request to search all arriving emails.

It is understood that Yahoo’s decision to acquiesce to the demands of US intelligence agencies led to the departure of former chief information security officer, Alex Stamos, who is now chief security officer at Facebook.

The compliance with US intelligence agencies is also far removed from the battle Apple took on when it refused to unlock the encryption on the iPhone, or create a back door to Apple’s encryption in the aftermath of the tragic San Bernardino shootings in the US.

Yahoo, which is the subject of a $4.6bn takeover by US telecoms giant Verizon, said very little on the matter, which is likely to spook Verizon investors who have yet to vote on the deal.

“Yahoo is a law-abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” the company said in a brief statement.

The latest revelations – if proved to be true – signal another episode in the tawdry decline of one of the internet’s brightest stars.

NSA spying imageCarsten Reisinger/Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years