22 April 2019
Yahoo is accused of secretly installing custom software to search all of its customers' incoming emails. Photo: AFP
Yahoo is accused of secretly installing custom software to search all of its customers' incoming emails. Photo: AFP

Yahoo, ACLU press US to disclose secret surveillance orders

Yahoo Inc. has asked US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper to declassify a surveillance order the company had received so it can respond to a Reuters report that it set up a special program last year to scan all Yahoo Mail users’ incoming messages.

Separately, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a motion before the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court asking it to release the Yahoo order and over 20 other significant rulings dating back more than a decade.

Reuters reported on Oct. 4 that Yahoo had secretly installed custom software to search all of its customers’ incoming emails to isolate those containing specific data matching a digital file provided by US intelligence officials.

The program ran for a brief period of time in the spring of 2015 before it was discovered by Yahoo’s security team and taken down, the news agency said, citing people familiar with the matter.

Privacy advocates have criticized Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer’s decision not to appeal the order and said the company exposed hundreds of millions of email users to secret searches.

“At Yahoo, we are deeply committed to transparency and to protecting the rights of our users. Yahoo was mentioned specifically in these reports and we find ourselves unable to respond in detail,” Yahoo general counsel Ron Bell wrote in a letter to Clapper that the company published online.

Bell asked Clapper to confirm the existence of the government order, to declassify all or part of it, and to “make a sufficiently detailed public and contextual comment to clarify the alleged facts and circumstances”.

Yahoo had previously said the Reuters report was “misleading” and that the “mail scanning described in the article does not exist on our systems”.

When asked to give specifics on how the story was misleading, or whether the operation described by Reuters had previously existed, Yahoo had declined to comment.

A number of political leaders in the United States and Europe have already been pressing US intelligence officials to declassify and release the order.

US government sources said officials were considering whether to release more about the justification for the court order served on Yahoo under Title 1 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The ACLU filing was aided by a Yale Law School team and follows a study released this week by the Brennan Center for Justice that tallied more than 25 major unreleased rulings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and other authorities.

The ACLU said the courts have approved government hacking, attempts to force companies to weaken their encryption, and bulk collection of financial records.

Yahoo said that while its letter to Clapper specifically related to the Reuters report, “it is intended to set a stronger precedent of transparency for our users and all citizens who could be affected by government requests for user data”.

– Contact us at [email protected]


EJI Weekly Newsletter

Please click here to unsubscribe