October 4, 2016 – Reuters reported today that Yahoo complied with a government directive last year to scan all of its incoming customers’ e-mails for certain content. Previously, companies were known to turn over e-mails from particular accounts, but this broad a search of content by a company has never previously been reported. Ironically, the government issued this directive the same year Congress ended the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records.
An NSA program called “Upstream” already scans a subset of Internet traffic as it transits the so-called “Internet backbone,” but filters are first applied to try to eliminate purely domestic e-mail traffic. The filters were one of several measures the NSA implemented after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court initially ruled Upstream collection unconstitutional. It does not appear that Yahoo applied any such filters in complying with the government’s directive.
“If Yahoo is indeed scanning the content of all of its customers’ e-mails at the NSA’s behest, that would appear to violate the Fourth Amendment,” said Elizabeth Goitein, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program, who testified about NSA surveillance before the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary this May. “It’s also a violation of customers’ privacy and trust. It’s disturbing to learn that the NSA was secretly expanding its surveillance reach at the very same time Congress was attempting to rein it in.”
Read more about the Brennan Center’s work on Liberty & National Security.