USA: UN rights expert troubled by allegations that Yahoo complied with surveillance demands

GENEVA (7 October 2016) – Reports that Yahoo complied with US intelligence demands by searching the e-mails of hundreds of millions of customers raise serious human rights concerns, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression, David Kaye, said today.

According to reports, Yahoo customized software to scan all incoming email traffic for information responsive to criteria provided by the US National Security Agency or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

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“Government monitoring of digital communications, when conducted as described in recent reports, could undermine the privacy that individuals depend on in order to seek, receive and impart information online,” the expert stressed. “Based on the allegations reported, I have serious concerns that the alleged surveillance fails to meet the standards of necessity and proportionality for the protection of legitimate government interests.”

In a 2013 report to the UN Human Rights Council on communications surveillance, the previous special rapporteur, Frank La Rue, concluded that government “access to communications data held by domestic corporate actors should only be sought in circumstances where other available less invasive techniques have been exhausted.”*

“Yahoo’s apparent accession to government surveillance requests, without evident legal challenge, also raises concern about the involvement of technology companies in questionable government programs that impact freedom of expression,” Mr. Kaye added, recalling his June 2016 report on the private sector and freedom of expression in the digital age. **

“States place undeniable pressures on the private information and communication technology sector that often lead to serious restrictions on the freedom of expression,” the 2016 report stated. Mr. Kaye reemphasised that companies in all areas of the industry “are capable of establishing and exercising varying degrees of leverage in their relationships with States to resist or mitigate the harm caused by abusive application of the law.”

“Private entities should be evaluated on the steps they take both to promote and undermine freedom of expression, even in hostile environments unfriendly to human rights,” his report also highlighted.

(*) See the Special Rapporteur’s report on communications surveillance: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/RegularSession/Session23/A.HRC.23.40_EN.pdf
(**) See the Special Rapporteur’s report on the private sector and freedom of expression in the digital age: http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/32/38