What Yahoo’s NSA Surveillance Means for Email Privacy

I wrote earlier at https://goo.gl/5D2xvw about Yahoo’s problem with the US government intelligence agencies (it is unclear if it was NSA, the CIA, the FBI, or some other agency). A government agency ordered Yahoo to spy on all Yahoo email customers to find occurrences of some word or phrase that interested the government intelligence folks. The news has generated a lot of backlash.

The latest article worth reading comes from ProtonMail, a privacy-oriented email provider with headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. An article in the company’s blog states:

…as a result of a secret US government directive, Yahoo was forced to implement special surveillance software to scan all Yahoo Mail accounts at the request of the NSA and FBI. Sometime in early 2015, Yahoo secretly modified their spam and malware filters to scan all incoming email messages for the phrases in the court order and then siphoned those messages off to US intelligence. This is significant for several reasons:

  • This is the first known incident where a US intelligence directive has indiscriminately targeted all accounts as opposed to just the accounts of suspects. Effectively, all 500 million+ Yahoo Mail users were presumed to be guilty.
  • Instead of searching stored messages, this directive forced Yahoo to scan incoming messages in real-time.
  • Because ALL incoming email messages were targeted, this program spied on every person who emailed a Yahoo Mail account, violating the privacy of users around the world who may not even have been using a US email service.What does this mean for US tech companies?

This is a terrible precedent and ushers in a new era of global mass surveillance. It means that US tech companies that serve billions of users around the world can now be forced to act as extensions of the US surveillance apparatus. The problem extends well beyond Yahoo. As was reported earlier, Yahoo did not fight the secret directive because Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and the Yahoo legal team did not believe that they could successfully resist the directive.

The full article is much longer and contains recommendations about what the rest of the world should do about this. The full article may be found at https://protonmail.com/blog/yahoo-us-intelligence/.

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