Millions of Yahoo users woke up Tuesday morning to discover their email provider has been secretly spying on them on behalf of the U.S. government. Reuters broke the news that in 2015, Yahoo created a tool for scanning its webmail at the request of the FBI and NSA. Hundreds of millions of incoming emails were scoured for specific keywords that the agencies consider hot buttons for possible terrorism or other criminal activity.
Back in 2012, the Department of Homeland Security released a keyword list that contains words and phrases that could be used in innocent conversations , such as leak, cloud, cops, wave, and smart. Those interested in news and world affairs could receive emails containing a number of these keywords and have those emails labeled as “suspicious.”
The obvious violation of Fourth Amendment privacy rights has users understandably upset. It is not clear yet if this will impact Yahoo’s bottom line. However, the idea of being spied on by “Big Brother” is one that many assume as inevitable.
Since 9-11, the government has been grooming citizens to accept more intrusion into their personal lives “for the sake of security.” From stricter airport screening requirements to cyber security, Americans are slowly giving up pieces of their privacy in exchange for perceived government protection.
Efforts to protect the security of online users through encryption, by companies like Yahoo, Apple, and Microsoft, have been met with more aggressive measures by surveillance operations, demanding that tech firms provide a backdoor into private content.
This is the first time that such a large-scale, email scanning by a tech firm is known to have been done on behalf of surveillance agencies. Earlier this year, Apple refused to hack into the San Bernardino shooter’s government-issued iPhone. The company was willing to take the matter to court to protect customer privacy than to allow authorities to force breaks in encryption.
Government overreach is a huge concern for tech firms because the same backdoor created to spy on users can end up in the hands of foreign governments. Yahoo apparently built this backdoor into its email system without even telling its then-security chief, Alex Stamos. The program was reportedly discovered by Yahoo’s security team in May 2015, within weeks of its installation. Stamos resigned in protest.
Currently, Yahoo emails are encrypted as they travel from one server to another, but can be read by Yahoo at the company’s discretion.