Yahoo Secretly Built Software To Scan All Emails Under Pressure From NSA Or FBI

So Reuters had a big exclusive report this morning about Yahoo creating “custom software to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information” at the behest of the NSA or FBI. This was built last year — which came well after the Snowden disclosures, and after Yahoo had been revealed to have legally challenged earlier NSA dragnet attempts — and after it had rolled out end-to-end encryption on email.

Apparently, this was a decision made at the top by Marissa Mayer, and pissed off the company’s top security guy, Alex Stamos (who is awesome and a big supporter of end-to-end encryption) leading him to leave the company (and move to Facebook, where he is currently).

According to the two 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.

Of course, this comes out less than a week after the NY Times had a big report on how Mayer de-prioritized security, despite having built up a great team of computer security experts called “The Paranoids.” But, Mayer apparently downplayed or blocked their efforts, leading many to go elsewhere. And now we find out that Yahoo agreed to create this special software for scanning all emails for certain phrases or keywords. Bizarrely, this new report notes that Mayer gave the task of writing this software not to the security team, but to email engineers, leaving the security team in the dark, until they discovered it, thinking it was malware:

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.

Now, there are still a number of open questions about this: chief among them if others, such as Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Twitter were similarly compelled to create similar software. This may not be that meaningful, but the article does not say that it was a FISA Court “order” but rather a “directive” that compelled this:

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.

The question then is what secret “directive” does the government have that allows such broad scanning? The most likely (but certainly not the only) possibility is a stretched interpretation of Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. That Section is responsible for two known programs for the NSA to collect info: PRISM, which had big tech companies sharing specific information with the NSA, and “upstream” collection in which broadband providers like AT&T would scan all traffic for certain information. Without more detail, it’s a little difficult to know what happened here, but it sounds like something in between PRISM and upstream — in which online service providers were similarly asked to scan all content for certain information.

It seems clear that Yahoo either didn’t think it could win a legal fight over this (certainly a possibility), or that it just didn’t want to. At the very least, this seems like yet another example of totally secretive rulemaking by the US government on what surveillance capabilities are legal, without any public review or adversarial process designed to make sure that civil liberties are protected. I know that many of the more paranoid folks out there think that the NSA already had deals with the big companies to scan all content, but they weren’t supposed to, and as far as we knew they did not as of a few years ago. But if that changed last year, that’s a big, big deal, and much more information needs to become public on this.


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Christopher Kemmett

Founder of The Real Strategy and Lowest Priced Advertisements.