Yahoo had a system intended for scanning emails of child pornography and spam which has helped Yahoo search messages for a computer “signature” tied to communications of a state-sponsored terrorist organization because of a secret court order. Last year a judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court barred Yahoo from disclosing the matter. The court order involved the systematic scanning of all Yahoo users’ emails rather than individual accounts.
This issue touches on and expands past conflicts between Silicon Valley companies and the United States government. Investigators found out that agents of the foreign terrorist organization were communicating using Yahoo’s email service using the unique identifier or signature. They did not know which accounts were using this signature, however. The officials did not name the terrorist organization.
This use of unusual surveillance has sparked outrage among privacy and technology specialists. Suzanne Philion, a Yahoo spokeswoman, said the company “narrowly interprets every government request for user data to minimize disclosure. The mail scanning described in the article does not exist on our systems.”
Tech companies complain that such orders make it impossible for them to explain to customers what data they do and do not turn over. Twitter and Microsoft have both sued the Justice Department over this gag order practice and both the cases are pending.
See original New York Times article here.