Wednesday, 05 October 2016 08:41

Yahoo! spied on users' email at spy agencies' behest: report Featured

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Yahoo! searched all its users' emails using a specially built program in order to try and locate specific information demanded by American intelligence officials, according to a Reuters report.

The company, which was bought by Verizon in July for US$4.83 billion, agreed to scan all mail accounts in line with a classified directive from the US government, Reuters said, citing two former Yahoo! workers and a third person who had been informed about it.

The directive came from the NSA or the FBI, the sources said.

What the spy agencies were after was not specified by the sources, who said only that they had asked Yahoo! to search for a set of characters.

Reuters said it had not been able to determine what kind of data, if any, was handed over to the spooks, and if other email providers had been confronted with similar demands.

marissa mayer big

Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer bowed to the demand by US spy agencies.

In an article titled "Delete your Yahoo! account", the website The Intercept said the unwillingness of Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer to put up any resistance to the intelligence agencies' request had likely been responsible for the departure of Alex Stamos, then the chief security officer for Yahoo!.

Stamos now works for Facebook as head of security but when The Intercept contacted him, he said he was not saying anything about Yahoo!. Asked whether Facebook had faced similar demands, Stamos told The Intercept that he would pass on the request to the communications staff.

The Intercept also said it had contacted Apple to inquire whether the company had faced such demands and was pointed to a part of a recent public letter by chief executive Tim Cook which an Apple spokesperson still applied:

"Finally, I want to be absolutely clear that we have never worked with any government agency from any country to create a backdoor in any of our products or services. We have also never allowed access to our servers. And we never will."

And a Google spokesperson told The Intercept, "We've never received such a request, but if we did, our response would be simple: 'no way'."

Microsoft was also contacted by The Intercept and issued this statement: "We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo!."

But the Microsoft spokesperson would not comment on the record as to whether such demands had been made on the company.

Nu Wexler, the public policy communications officer at Twitter, told The Intercept: "Federal law prohibits us from answering your question, and we’re currently suing the Justice Department for the ability to disclose more information about government requests."

Commenting on the Reuters report, the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement: "Based on this report, the order issued to Yahoo appears to be unprecedented and unconstitutional. The government appears to have compelled Yahoo to conduct precisely the type of general, suspicionless search that the Fourth Amendment was intended to prohibit."

Staff attorney Patrick Toomey said: "It is deeply disappointing that Yahoo! declined to challenge this sweeping surveillance order, because customers are counting on technology companies to stand up to novel spying demands in court. If this surveillance was conducted under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, this story reinforces the urgent need for Congress to reform the law to prevent dragnet surveillance and require increased transparency."


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Sam Varghese

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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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