Yahoo Spies On its Users for the US Government: Myth or Fact?

In the latest technology news, Yahoo is being accused of spying on its users on behalf of the US government. According to a Reuters report, Yahoo built surveillance tools last year after the National Security Agency or the FBI issued a secret directive to scan all customers’ incoming emails. The agencies asked the company to search for “a set of characters,” according to the report, which cited anonymous former Yahoo employees. That could be either a phrase, for example, or an attachment, sources told Reuters.

Executive Turmoil

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Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer chose to obey the directive. Apparently her decision prompted then-Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos to leave the company in June 2015. Stamos reportedly told people working for him that a programming flaw could give hackers access to customers’ stored emails. He is now Facebook’s security chief. “Yahoo is a law-abiding company and complies with the laws of the United States,” a Yahoo spokesman said. The FBI and NSA didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Off the Beaten Path

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The fact that Yahoo complied with the government request is in stark contrast with the tech industry’s public stance on consumer privacy. In January, Apple showed a willingness to defy an FBI request to write custom code that would break encryption on an iPhone tied to the San Bernardino, California, terrorist attack. In March, more than 40 top tech companies signed amicus briefs supporting Apple in a court case that was resolved without a final ruling.

One of a Kind Directive

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Not only was it odd that Yahoo complied with the directive but many other tech companies have come forward claiming they have never seen such a request made by any government before. “Facebook has never received a request like the one described in these news reports from any government, and if we did we would fight it,” a Facebook spokesman said in a statement. Others tech giants echoed that sentiment as well:

“We have never received a request of this type,” an Apple spokesman said in a statement. “If we were to receive one, we would oppose it in court.”

Twitter noted that it is suing the US government for the ability to share more about government demands for information.

“We’ve never received a request like this, and were we to receive it we’d challenge it in a court,” a Twitter spokesman said in a statement. “Separately, while federal law prohibits companies from being able to share information about certain types of national security related requests, we are currently suing the Justice Department for the ability to disclose more information about government requests.”

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