In an odd twist to an already odd story, Yahoo officials have asked the Director of National Intelligence to confirm whether the federal government ordered the company to scan users’ emails for specific terms last year and if so, to declassify the order.
The letter is the result of news reports earlier this month that detailed an order that the FBI allegedly served on Yahoo in 2015 in an apparent effort to find messages with a specific set of terms. The stories allege that Yahoo complied with the order and installed custom software to accomplish the task. Yahoo officials said at the time the Reuters story came out that there is no such scanning system on its network, but did not say that the scanning software never existed on the network at all.
In the letter, sent to DNI James Clapper on Wednesday, Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell said that Clapper’s office is in a position to clarify whether the email scanning order exists and asked Clapper to do so as soon as possible.
“Erosion of that trust online implicates the safety and security of people around the world.”
“Yahoo was mentioned specifically in these reports and we find ourselves unable to respond in detail. You office, however, is well positioned to clarify this matter of public interest. Accordingly, we urge your office to consider the following actions to provide clarity on the matter: (i) confirm whether an order, as described in these media reports, was issued; (ii) declassify in whole or in part such order, if it exists; and (iii) make a sufficiently detailed public and contextual comment to clarify the alleged facts and circumstances,” the letter says.
“We appreciate the need for confidentiality in certain aspects of investigations involving public safety or national security; however, transparency is critical to ensure accountability and in this context must include disclosing how and under what set of circumstances the U.S. government uses specific legal authorities, including the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, to obtain private information about individuals’ online activities or communications.”
The Yahoo email scanning story generated quite a bit of angst in the privacy community, and Yahoo officials said little on the matter. The company simply said the email scanning system wasn’t on the Yahoo network now, and that may well have been all the company could say legally. Many orders from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court carry gag orders with them, preventing recipients from discussing them publicly.
In the letter to Clapper, Yahoo’s counsel said that the need for clarity on this issue isn’t important just for Yahoo, but for other tech companies, as well.
“But transparency is not merely a Yahoo issue: Transparency underpins the ability of any company in the information and communications technology sector to earn and preserve the trust of its customers. Erosion of that trust online implicates the safety and security of people around the world and diminishes confidence and trust in U.S. businesses at home and beyond our borders,” the letter says.
Yahoo executives aren’t the only ones interested in seeing the order, if it in fact exists. The week after the news broke, Sen. Ron Wyden said the order should be declassified and made public, as well.
Image from Flickr stream of U.S. Coast Guard Academy.