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Hands typing on a computer keyboard. (photo: hamburg_berlin/Shutterstock)
Hands typing on a computer keyboard. (photo: hamburg_berlin/Shutterstock)

Yahoo Secretly Scanned Customer Emails for US Intelligence

By Joseph Menn, Reuters

05 October 16


ahoo 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 demand, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said three former employees and a fourth person apprised of the events.

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

It is not known what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified.

Reuters was unable to determine what data Yahoo may have handed over, if any, and if intelligence officials had approached other email providers besides Yahoo with this kind of request.

According to two of the former employees, Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer's decision to obey the directive roiled some senior executives and led to the June 2015 departure of Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos, who now holds the top security job at Facebook Inc.

"Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States," the company said in a brief statement in response to Reuters questions about the demand. Yahoo declined any further comment.

Through a Facebook spokesman, Stamos declined a request for an interview.

The NSA referred questions to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which declined to comment.

The request to search Yahoo Mail accounts came in the form of a classified edict sent to the company's legal team, according to the three people familiar with the matter.

U.S. phone and Internet companies are known to have handed over bulk customer data to intelligence agencies. But some former government officials and private surveillance experts said they had not previously seen either such a broad demand for real-time Web collection or one that required the creation of a new computer program.

"I've never seen that, a wiretap in real time on a 'selector,'" said Albert Gidari, a lawyer who represented phone and Internet companies on surveillance issues for 20 years before moving to Stanford University this year. A selector refers to a type of search term used to zero in on specific information.

"It would be really difficult for a provider to do that," he added.

Experts said it was likely that the NSA or FBI had approached other Internet companies with the same demand, since they evidently did not know what email accounts were being used by the target. The NSA usually makes requests for domestic surveillance through the FBI, so it is hard to know which agency is seeking the information.

Alphabet Inc's Google and Microsoft Corp, two major U.S. email service providers, separately said on Tuesday that they had not conducted such email searches.

"We've never received such a request, but if we did, our response would be simple: 'No way'," a spokesman for Google said in a statement.

A Microsoft spokesperson said in a statement, "We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo." The company declined to comment on whether it had received such a request.


Under laws including the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, intelligence agencies can ask U.S. phone and Internet companies to provide customer data to aid foreign intelligence-gathering efforts for a variety of reasons, including prevention of terrorist attacks.

Disclosures by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden and others have exposed the extent of electronic surveillance and led U.S. authorities to modestly scale back some of the programs, in part to protect privacy rights.

Companies including Yahoo have challenged some classified surveillance before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, a secret tribunal.

Some FISA experts said Yahoo could have tried to fight last year's demand on at least two grounds: the breadth of the directive and the necessity of writing a special program to search all customers' emails in transit.

Apple Inc made a similar argument earlier this year when it refused to create a special program to break into an encrypted iPhone used in the 2015 San Bernardino massacre. The FBI dropped the case after it unlocked the phone with the help of a third party, so no precedent was set.

"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," Patrick Toomey, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

Some FISA experts defended Yahoo's decision to comply, saying nothing prohibited the surveillance court from ordering a search for a specific term instead of a specific account. So-called "upstream" bulk collection from phone carriers based on content was found to be legal, they said, and the same logic could apply to Web companies' mail.

As tech companies become better at encrypting data, they are likely to face more such requests from spy agencies.

Former NSA General Counsel Stewart Baker said email providers "have the power to encrypt it all, and with that comes added responsibility to do some of the work that had been done by the intelligence agencies."


Mayer and other executives ultimately decided to comply with the directive last year rather than fight it, in part because they thought they would lose, said the people familiar with the matter.

Yahoo in 2007 had fought a FISA demand that it conduct searches on specific email accounts without a court-approved warrant. Details of the case remain sealed, but a partially redacted published opinion showed Yahoo's challenge was unsuccessful.

Some Yahoo employees were upset about the decision not to contest the more recent edict and thought the company could have prevailed, the sources said.

They were also upset that Mayer and Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell did not involve the company's security team in the process, instead asking Yahoo's email engineers to write a program to siphon off messages containing the character string the spies sought and store them for remote retrieval, according to the sources.

The sources said the program was discovered by Yahoo's security team in May 2015, within weeks of its installation. The security team initially thought hackers had broken in.

When Stamos found out that Mayer had authorized the program, he resigned as chief information security officer and told his subordinates that he had been left out of a decision that hurt users' security, the sources said. Due to a programming flaw, he told them hackers could have accessed the stored emails.

Stamos's announcement in June 2015 that he had joined Facebook did not mention any problems with Yahoo. (

In a separate incident, Yahoo last month said "state-sponsored" hackers had gained access to 500 million customer accounts in 2014. The revelations have brought new scrutiny to Yahoo's security practices as the company tries to complete a deal to sell its core business to Verizon Communications Inc for $4.8 billion. your social media marketing partner


A note of caution regarding our comment sections:

For months a stream of media reports have warned of coordinated propaganda efforts targeting political websites based in the U.S., particularly in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

We too were alarmed at the patterns we were, and still are, seeing. It is clear that the provocateurs are far more savvy, disciplined, and purposeful than anything we have ever experienced before.

It is also clear that we still have elements of the same activity in our article discussion forums at this time.

We have hosted and encouraged reader expression since the turn of the century. The comments of our readers are the most vibrant, best-used interactive feature at Reader Supported News. Accordingly, we are strongly resistant to interrupting those services.

It is, however, important to note that in all likelihood hardened operatives are attempting to shape the dialog our community seeks to engage in.

Adapt and overcome.

Marc Ash
Founder, Reader Supported News

+24 # guomashi 2016-10-05 09:11
We need to change our national anthem -
How about ending it with
"the land of the scanned"?
"free" just doesn't cut it any more.
+21 # librarian1984 2016-10-05 10:06
While we're at it, can we change "US Intelligence" to "capitalist oligarch pinhead lapmonkeys"?

And let's do this: Capitalism's Inbred A$$holes. That way it's more accurate but we don't have to change the t-shirts and coffee mugs.
+18 # RGV.REG 2016-10-05 10:42
While we're at it, why don't we just stop using Yahoo?
That would send a message!
+4 # EternalTruth 2016-10-05 11:32
What alternative do you suggest, which you believe will protect our privacy?
+9 # guomashi 2016-10-05 11:58
Start with a setup for deep web browsing: using TOR and a separate UNIX boot drive. From there you can find anonymous email servers.
+6 # Anonymot 2016-10-05 14:14
I've thought of TOR, but it sounds complicated. Is it?
+6 # guomashi 2016-10-05 15:51
It's not too bad.
Anything is either easy or impossible - you just have to know how to do it.
There are lots of youtube instructional videos on how to set up a system.

TOR itself isn't difficult but:
you can't use windows if you want to maintain anonymity.
You have load a different operating system like UNIX.
A few things have to be done, but it's far from impossible.
+19 # Street Level 2016-10-05 09:43
A few years back, Yahoo deleted our emails that had "occupy" in the subject line before most knew what it was and then admitted to it.
The stunt just lent legitimacy to the movement.
+5 # Salburger 2016-10-05 10:27
"Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of..." Russia, China, North Korea, the Islamic Republic of Iran?
+15 # Krackonis 2016-10-05 13:07
Oddly, Russia, China North Korea and Iran are all under attack by the USA, either economically or directly.

So... They can at least claim some justification.. . What can the US claim?

"We are just trying to start WW3..." - USA
+14 # Anonymot 2016-10-05 10:34
"Yahoo Secretly Scanned Customer Emails for US Intelligence"

Of course they did.

Allow me to make a very strong suggestion to everyone who reads RSN regardless of your politics, trolls included.

There is a memoir that reads like a page-turner novel. It is brilliantly written. It should be an obligatory high school read, but it isn't and won't be. It was lost for 60 years while its author became famous for other things. His son found it by accident after his death. It is about another country in another time and it is about us here and now in America, October/Novembe r 2016 in vivid detail. You'll find new & used copies everywhere.

You will be startled and wiser.

Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner.
+16 # walt 2016-10-05 10:43
This says plenty about the Obama administration and its failure to give us that "change we can believe in."

Add to it: increased troops to Afghanistan, return of troops to Iraq, increase to 138 countries where we have troops, drone killings, $38 billion to Israel for weapons, and more.

How sad!
+13 # goodsensecynic 2016-10-05 12:29
Don't forget Honduras (2009) and Libya (2011) ... not bad for a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
+10 # goodsensecynic 2016-10-05 12:36
Incidentally, it might be excessive to suggest that Edward Snowden (and maybe Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras) be awarded a Nobel Peace Prize too ... but, as a way to salvage his legacy, Mr. Obama might award all of them a Presidential Medal of Freedom or, for the non-Americans among them, honorary US citizenship ... including, of course, a pardon for all for any criminal offenses - real or imagined.
+4 # anarchaos 2016-10-05 17:22
Agreed!! All of the above mentioned, except Mr.Obama, are truly patriots and heroes IMO.
+11 # librarian1984 2016-10-05 17:27
Snowden: I can't believe Obama changed his mind. This is great.

Assange: It certainly was a quick turnaround.

Government Representative: Take your places, everyone. The ceremony will take place shortly.

Manning: I can't believe they let me out of prison to participate.

Government Rep: Well, we realize how wrong we were.

Greenwald: Hey, there's a bunch of my press buddies.

Government Rep: I'll be right back. I'll just make sure everything is ready. Hold on!

Poitras: Wow, it looks like every journalist with integrity is here!

(car heard driving away) (buzzing)

Snowden: Hey where did that guy go?

(louder buzzing)

Assange: Weren't we supposed to start already?

(droning heard)
+5 # CTPatriot 2016-10-05 18:26
I wanted to thumbs up this but it's so scary and so real I just couldn't. I'm going to have nightmares now.
+4 # guomashi 2016-10-05 21:06
I have been expecting it for a long time.
It is best to adopt the samurai code of battle: enter as if you are already dead.
That way you can adhere to the truth.
Everyone knows that of something 'happens' to me who will have done it.
+4 # lorenbliss 2016-10-05 22:03
@guomashi: "enter battle as if you are already dead." Wow; that is truly the most profound resistance-apho rism I have yet encountered on-line or anywhere else. Wow again -- and thank you. For you not just a clenched-fist salute but the Asiatic bow of honor between equals. Wow...
+5 # lorenbliss 2016-10-05 22:15
@CTPatriot I gave the Librarian a thumbs up for precisely those reasons -- scary and real and also damn well done, thus on a par with Orwell's scenarios in "1984"...or more aptly with Harry Turtledove's alternate-histo ry short story about what happens to Gandhi when Hitler wins World War II...
+1 # polfrosch 2016-10-06 16:13
Very good. No, that´s not enough. Excellent, librarian!
+2 # John S. Browne 2016-10-05 18:53

Again, Snowden, Manning, Poitras and Greenwald are already U.S. citizens; just, with the exception of Manning who is in a U.S. federal prison, they reside abroad, Greenwald by choice. And I doubt very much that Assange, who is an Australian citizen, would want whatsoever to become a U.S. citizen. He recognizes that the U.S. government is the most evil government on the face of the planet, and/or the largest threat to world peace in existence at this time; therefore, why in Goodness' name would he want to become a U.S. citizen?! He wouldn't.

In addition, he knows that the U.S. is becoming an increasingly unsafe place to live for all of its citizens, another very good reason that he would not want to become a U.S. citizen himself.

Further, even if the U.S. government claimed to grant Assange and/or Snowden safe passage to the U.S., it would still be extremely dangerous for them to trust the U.S. government at all, and unsafe for them to come here as a result of the fact that the government cannot be trusted.

You are fantasizing, and it is not harmless. You're being absurd; and, you don't even know what you're talking about. So, it belies your monicker, and you are not exercising good sense, at all in this case.

+4 # anarchaos 2016-10-05 17:18
[quote name="goodsense cynic"]Don't forget Honduras (2009) and Libya (2011)"Honduras (2009) and Libya (2011)" both had the sociopathic help of HRC, then the SecOfState ... not bad for a Nobel Peace Prize winner, and his very 'experienced' WarHawkess. Doctor Jill Stein & Ajamu Baraka in 2016.
+4 # Anonymot 2016-10-05 14:26
About that 38 Billion, We're not giving them cash although there must be enough for a few Billion bucks to be skimmed off for the Israeli pols.

The DOD (don't worry, they are all dead honest - or is it honest dead?) gives 38 B of orders to their favorite makers of killing equipment in America. THEY skim off the colossal profits. So America profits and Israel is armed to kill Moslems (those we haven't killed for them already.)

The US taxpayer bends over and coughs up the $38 B, of course, and that doesn't leave enough for such liberal horrors as health care, roads, increasing social security, etc., etc.
+7 # librarian1984 2016-10-05 17:30
Why is that information coming out right now? Someone released it. I hope some journalist is following the money.

And what is this money actually being used for. If it's a State Dept. slush fund, where is the money going, to whom and for what?

Are Nuland's fingerprints on it? Is this funding Ukrainian neo-nazis?
+2 # lorenbliss 2016-10-05 17:42
And as our soldiers too often discover for themselves (most notably with the M-16 and the reduction of the service-pistol caliber from .45ACP [Always Casualty-Produc ing] to 9mm [Minimum Mortality, i.e. "9" as the number of times you've gotta shoot 'em before they die]), most of that so-called "killing equipment" is in the name of its manufacturers' obscene profits so badly made or so under-powered, it's nearly as deadly to its users as it is to the enemy.

Question: why do USian troops afield so quickly dump their issue gear and replace it with Russian or Chinese stuff?

Answer: because U.S. gear is made for maximum profit, while the Russian and Chinese stuff is made for maximum reliability.

(And think about that in the context of Hillary's plan to start World War III by invading Russia.)

Such is capitalism in action: minimally effective weaponry at maximum profit for the manufacturer, maximum cost to the taxpayer and maximum mortality to the troops who have to use it.

(Which mortality puts even more money in the capitalists' pocket because dead soldiers require no post-combat health care.)

And yes I fully admit to being a cynical son-of-a-bitch, but that does not detract from the truth of what I'm saying. Ask any U.S. combat vet...
+12 # Ted 2016-10-05 10:47
I must have missed the memo, are we supposed to pretend to be surprised?
+4 # lorenbliss 2016-10-05 17:56
Good point. And how do we know the companies that claim they didn't aren't lying? (Especially since deliberate deception -- the sole reason for the gazillion-dolla r Big Lie Business of Madison Avenue -- is the quintessential core of capitalism.)
+15 # Kootenay Coyote 2016-10-05 10:50
Yahoo 'scanned customer emails' under top-secret order

‘The court's work, usually conducted in secret,…’

There is never justification for a secret court: that condition always implies Injustice & Illegality.
+11 # djnova50 2016-10-05 11:30
The only real customers Yahoo has are the ones that it sells ad space too. I've used Yahoo Mail and Groups for many years. Since I wasn't paying for the use of these products, I never saw myself as a customer. Also, I made it a point to not click on any of the ads. Verizon is in the process of buying Yahoo's core business. Does anybody really think things will be different under the ownership of Verizon?
-5 # Robbee 2016-10-05 12:25
for one i have always felt that my every internet-shared keystroke, my every phone-spoken word, is known in real time to the nsa - and to everyone else who wants me bad enough to pay to hack me

unless i can talk bernie, hill or some other leader into promoting a constitutional amendment that public funds elections - i am no threat to our plutocracy - to anyone who may care to pay

from time-to-time i feel like the most dangerous person to TPTB - only because i believe i know what's going on - and know the only strategy likely to fix our rigged political system
+8 # Krackonis 2016-10-05 13:05
Anyone else read this line with a German accent? "Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,"
+7 # guomashi 2016-10-05 15:53
IN otherwords, its not the company, it's the laws.
+2 # John S. Browne 2016-10-05 18:39

What a bunch of yahoos! (I know, stupid joke.) But, as far as these companies are concerned, the heck with privacy, and the heck with the Fourth Amendment. They write all kinds of fine print into their privacy agreements that most customers agree to without reading it, that allow them to violate our privacy for a variety of reasons; so, do you think I trust them because they fight some edicts of the government in order to put on a show that they "are" respecting the Constitution, our privacy rights, and our privacy in general? No way!

Most companies like Yahoo, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, etc., broadly cooperate with the government, even in some cases, acting as virtual, if they are not actual, front companies for "al CIAduh(!)", the NSA and other government agencies, funneling virtually all of our communications and internet activity to the government, or allowing the government to access it. In other words, those biggest companies are corporate-fasci st businesses who are working with the government to curtail, not protect, our rights. Thus, we can't trust any of them.

(Continued below)
+2 # John S. Browne 2016-10-05 18:40

The government heavily protects these companies too, from being found guilty of any wrongdoing and/or illegality, including retroactively, when the companies cooperate with invasive, broad surveillance of everyone's digital footprints, rewarding them for their cooperating in the violation of our rights, and leaving us with almost no real protection(s) from our privacy (what privacy?) being violated.

Most companies bow to government pressure, or will; being that, secretly at least, for their business reasons they don't really want any of their customers to have any privacy, within their company operations anyway, in order to mine us for our shopping patterns, ways we use the internet, what our likes and dislikes are, etc.; so, naturally, being the invasive "disrespecters" of rights that they are, the government wants to mine those data resources in order to develop personality profiles of all U.S. citizens, especially dissenters against the increasing tyranny of the our now completely out of control, invasive government, which treats us all like, allegedly, none of us really have any rights, particularly to freedom of speech, to privacy, to probable cause, to presumption of innocence, and to due process of law.

(Continued below)
+1 # John S. Browne 2016-10-05 18:41

As has been said before, we're now all considered to be "suspects" that the government can allegedly do anything they want to do to us, including shooting us dead at the drop of a hat, and simply for standing up for our rights, getting away with it without ramifications. If that's not tyranny, what is? This tyranny was never supposed to be allowed to come to exist in the U.S., under our constitutional- republic system of government, is certainly not to be tolerated by any of the citizenry of same, and said tyranny is the duty of all of us to stand up against, no matter how we get painted, labeled or how much we get targeted by the government as a result.

These liberty-, freedom- and privacy- destroying things can't be accepted. We can't just sit back and voluntarily allow our once relatively-free country to be turned into the totalitarian militarized fascist police state that it is being turned into (heck, has pretty much already become). Of course such fascist "national '(in)security'" states consider all those who stand up for freedom, liberty and privacy to be "threats"; but we must not bow down and allow ourselves to be turned into the opposite of being Truly Free, and being Truly Liberated from government tyranny, which is being turned into slaves. We MUST assert our True Independence, Free Will, Freedom of Choice, Self-Determinat ion, Self-Governance , and Emancipation from government tyranny if we are to be a Truly Free people.

(Continued below)
+1 # John S. Browne 2016-10-05 18:41

What do you want, people, to be slaves, the opposite of free, or do you want to be Truly Free people? If we do want to be Truly Free and Independent as we were only designed to be, and we don't want to be the opposite, slaves, we have all got to stand up against and not tolerate this increasing tyranny, oppression, eradication of liberty, freedom and privacy, and increasing repression whatsoever. We have got to "throw off" (to quote the U.S. Declaration of Independence) all of this expanding tyranny, and the turning of all of us into slaves, the opposite of Truly Free and Independent, and we all have to at least try to establish the opposite of this tyranny, True Freedom, Liberty and Privacy, or die trying; otherwise, we are dooming ourselves and all of us to a terrorizing and tyrannical repression that will completely destroy the vast majority of us, and make us all suffer a level of suffering heretofore unknown.

+7 # Akeel1701 2016-10-05 18:42
so they were searching for intelligence... and did they find any?
+4 # guomashi 2016-10-05 21:08
Quoting Akeel1701:
so they were searching for intelligence... and did they find any?

how would they know if they did?
doesn't it take intelligence to recognize intelligence?

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