According to a report carried by Reuters yesterday, Yahoo built secretive surveillance tools last year to scan its users' incoming emails after being asked to do so by unnamed U.S. government agencies. According to at least three former Yahoo employees quoted by the news agency, either the NSA or the FBI reportedly issued a secret directive to the internet giant to scan all users' incoming emails, following which, the company reportedly wrote a custom software program to comply with the demand. With privacy concerns at the top of their agenda, fellow American tech giants, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook and Twitter, have all released separate statements today, denying ever being approached by the U.S. government with any similar request, let alone complying with it.
According to TechCrunch, a Twitter spokesperson told the publication that the company “never received a request like this, and were we to receive it we’d challenge it in a court”. The company also said that it is currently suing the U.S. Justice Department “for the ability to disclose more information about government requests”. Microsoft also denied any involvement in covert surveillance activities, saying that the company has “never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo". The company has also sued the DOJ in the past in order to bring in more transparency to government requests for user data.
A Google spokesperson also denied receiving any such request from the government, saying that even if it were to receive any such request, “our response would be simple: no way”. Facebook and Apple, meanwhile, vowed to fight against requests for user data by the U.S. government. A Facebook spokesperson said that the company “has never received a request like the one described in these news reports from any government and if we did we would fight it”. Apple also denied ever receiving “a request of this type”. The company further clarified that, “If we were to receive one, we would oppose it in court”. Yahoo, already reeling from reports of a massive 2012 hack that it failed to make public until last month, released a cryptic statement, saying that it is a law abiding company that complies with U.S. laws. The company, however, did not directly deny the Reuters report.
According to Reuters, the CEO of Yahoo, Ms. Marissa Mayer, was responsible for complying with the directive which was vigorously opposed by some members of her senior management team, including the then Chief Information Security Officer of the company, Mr. Alex Stamos, who has since left the company to join Facebook. While many privacy activists and organizations like the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has derided Yahoo’s decision to give in to the U.S. government demand, some constitutional experts defended Yahoo and the U.S. intelligence agencies, saying that the demand was a valid and legal one under the 2008 amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) of 1978. The NSA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence both declined comment on the issue.