Surveillance: Yahoo’s email snooping
Once again, Americans have had to find out about government surveillance the hard way, said Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post. According to a bombshell Reuters investigation, Yahoo built a custom tool last year to allow the National Security Agency and the FBI to secretly scan all of its users’ incoming email for specific characters or words. The “ready compliance” of Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was apparently so disturbing to senior executives that at least two of them left the company, including the chief information security officer. Ironically, Yahoo was one of the many technology companies making “lavish promises of public debate and transparency” in the wake of Edward Snowden’s initial revelations. “Well, that was then.”
Hundreds of millions of Yahoo users were potentially subject to warrantless searches of their email, “the equivalent of searching every house in a city block to look for a missing gun,” said Russell Brandom in TheVerge.com. Is that legal? Privacy advocates would say, under the Fourth Amendment, absolutely not. Nevertheless, the government has become very adept at interpreting vague laws designed to surveil foreign citizens, even if U.S. citizens are swept up in the dragnet. If a company decides to fight a surveillance order, “that fight will take place in secret courts friendly to intelligence agencies.” Yahoo likely felt it had no choice in the matter. “That’s a scary thought.”
Intelligence agencies are playing hardball with Silicon Valley, said Andy Greenberg in Wired.com. Yahoo, along with many other tech companies, actually beefed up its encryption practices after the Snowden revelations, forcing the likes of the NSA to change its playbook. “Stymied by uncrackable crypto, [agencies] increasingly respond by demanding that tech companies perform intrusive operations themselves.” But unlike Apple, which vigorously fought back against government demands that it help break into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone, Yahoo apparently caved to the feds “and built exactly the sort of security-compromising software that Apple refused to.” Encryption is all well and good, but it’s useless if tech companies don’t display some backbone.
Yahoo, for its part, is being “cagey,” said Robert Hackett in Fortune.com. The company has said the Reuters story is misleading, and that no such mail-scanning program currently exists, but otherwise, it’s not denying the report. These revelations couldn’t come at a worse time for Yahoo, said The Economist. Just last month, the company suffered the biggest data breach of a single site in history. Verizon, which agreed to buy Yahoo in July for $4.8 billion, could now “have the right either to walk away or to ask for a lower price.” Meanwhile, rest assured plenty of users are asking, “How do I delete my Yahoo account?”