Ya-who's been looking at your e-mail?

Most of us manage our personal e-mail through web portals such as Google or Microsoft Outlook’s on-line service, and in many cases our business mail, too. We have a reasonable expectation of privacy, at least to the extent that we pay for those services. On free sites, that expectation might be a bit less, as we trade certain aspects of our privacy for the service’s commercial interests. As the Internet axiom goes, if you’re getting it for free, you’re not the customer.


Still, most of us assume that the actual content of the messages remains private between senders and recipients. Reuters reported late yesterday that at least for Yahoo’s customers, that expectation went down the tubes:

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.

Some surveillance experts said this represents the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to a spy agency’s demand by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time.

Until now, the US government has insisted that they only did broad trawling through e-mail communications on the “pen and register” basis, looking at addressing and not content. This refutes those claims, which weren’t widely believed in the first place. It also — again — puts James Clapper in the position of having lied to Congress about the surveillance techniques of intelligence agencies under his command.


It’s not just Clapper, either. Remember what Barack Obama said three years ago when asked about domestic surveillance by Charlie Rose? He insisted that any peek into the content of e-mails only resulted from “an individualized court order”:

Obama’s assurances have hinged, for example, on a term — targeting — that has a specific meaning for U.S. spy agencies that would elude most ordinary citizens.

“What I can say unequivocally is that if you are a U.S. person, the NSA cannot listen to your telephone calls and the NSA cannot target your e-mails,” Obama said in his June 17 interview on PBS’s “Charlie Rose Show.”

Whether or not Obama was engaging in Clintonian spin about the word “target,” the clear message to American citizens was that the government couldn’t access the content of our e-mails without a warrant. And yet, here we have the government pressuring Yahoo into providing access to content on the widest possible scale, and Yahoo caving to their demands — two years after Obama made this statement. It was hardly voluntary — the Obama administration threatened to levy $250,000 fines each day for non-compliance — but Yahoo complied.

Not only did Yahoo cave, but they expedited the process in a manner that allowed hackers to exploit their customers, according to the Washington Post:


But Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer’s decision to obey the order last year upset Stamos and some other senior executives, according to Reuters. Instead of looping in the security team, Mayer turned to the Yahoo’s email engineers to develop the software, Reuters reported. That decision led to a programming error that left all Yahoo email vulnerable to hackers, the former Yahoo employee said.

Smooth, eh? For the record, Yahoo’s competitors say they’ve never been asked by the US government to facilitate such a broad surveillance regime, but that they would refuse any such demands:

Google, which runs Gmail, said in a statement: “We’ve never received such a request, but if we did, our response would be simple: ‘no way’.” Microsoft, another major email provider, said, “We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo.” Apple, in a statement said, “We have never received a request of this type. If we were to receive one, we would oppose it in court.”

Hmmm. How likely would that be? Why would the NSA or other agency only make that demand of Yahoo? If they had specific intelligence about the use of Yahoo, then they should have been able to narrow down the scope of the search in a reasonable manner that would allow for minimal intrusion on privacy. If they were just trolling — and so far, that’s what it looks like — how effective would it be without including the other providers in the surveillance?


This story demonstrates that the Obama administration is still lying about the scope of its domestic surveillance. If this kind of intrusion is necessary, then make the case for it. Otherwise, the federal government should abide by the law. And when they don’t, voters should make them pay in the upcoming election. The only way possible to put a stop to this arrogance is to toss out those who keep going on national television and offering bald-faced lies about how they conduct their business.

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John Stossel 12:01 AM on December 07, 2023