Allegations that Yahoo Scanned Hundreds of Millions of E-Mail Messages for U.S. Government

October 10, 2016

REUTERS/Fred Prouser

REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Reportedly, Yahoo has for more than a year secretly scanned, at the request of United States government intelligence authorities, hundreds of millions of e-mail messages received by its users.  This compliance with U.S. government surveillance requests seems to contrast with Yahoo’s resistance to similar government requests in previous years.  The action has led some privacy and consumer advocates to question Yahoo’s commitment to the rights of its users.

According to reports, a U.S. government intelligence agency requested in 2015 that Yahoo scan hundreds of millions of incoming email messages and provide information regarding those messages, apparently including message content, to the government authorities.  Yahoo’s decision to comply with the government request was reportedly controversial within the company.  As a result of that decision, some employees apparently resigned from the company as they believed the action to be unethical.

Yahoo’s cooperation with the controversial request seems surprising, as the company had reportedly on more than one previous occasion, contested monitoring requests made by the U.S. intelligence community.  In those previous cases, Yahoo apparently pursued legal actions in an effort to avoid the requested monitoring, but was compelled to cooperate with the government surveillance by court orders.

Matsuura Blakeley BannerIt is currently unclear as to why Yahoo seems to have abandoned its previous policy of challenging government surveillance orders.  As a result of that decision, the privacy of email communications involving millions of Yahoo users seems to have been compromised.

Other email service providers indicated that they have not engaged in this type of government-requested email content scanning.  Google reportedly stated that it had never been presented with the type of request that was apparently received by Yahoo and that if the company ever received such a request, it would exercise legal methods to challenge the validity of such a request.  Microsoft reportedly stated that it has never engaged in email scanning of the kind apparently conducted by Yahoo.

Although it is likely that Yahoo would eventually have been compelled to cooperate with the government request for message monitoring, it is extremely disappointing that Yahoo apparently chose not to exercise its legal rights to challenge the validity of this government action.  Yahoo’s prior efforts to contest government surveillance initiatives and pursue legal methods to make the public aware of those initiatives were valuable and significant contributions to the public interest.  The company’s recent decision apparently to abandon its previous highly principled approach is harmful to Yahoo’s customers and to the general public.

Yahoo and the other major technology companies appear to be the organizations that are best positioned to help the public assert and maintain at least a moderate level of personal privacy in the current environment of aggressive government surveillance.  If those companies back away from this debate, the public will suffer.  We can only hope that Yahoo will reconsider its approach and will return to its prior position as an advocate of digital consumer rights.