Yahoo Inc. last year secretly built a custom software program to search all its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, Reuters reported, citing people familiar with the matter.
Yahoo 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 the FBI, said three former employees and a fourth person apprised of the events.
Some surveillance experts said this represents the first known case of a U.S. internet company agreeing to a spy 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’s unknown what information officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a specific string of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified, according to Reuters.
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.
Presuming that the report is correct, it would represent essentially the digital equivalent of a general warrant, which is forbidden by the Fourth Amendment, according to a tweet by Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Andrew Crocker.
Reuters was unable to confirm whether the 2015 demand went to other companies or, if so, whether any complied, it said.
“Yahoo is a law abiding company and complies with the laws of the United States,” Yahoo said in a brief statement responding to Reuters’ questions about the demand. Yahoo declined any further comment, said Reuters, which broke the story this afternoon.