Yahoo Adapted Email-Scanning Spam Filter to Satisfy 'Secret Court Order' Related to Terrorist Hunt

Following a report yesterday that cited three former Yahoo employees who claimed the company built a program to scan every customer's email for specific information at the order of the United States government, new pieces of information have surfaced in a separate article from The New York Times. Specifically, anonymous sources close to the matter said that Yahoo built the program by adapting a filter meant to scan email inboxes for child pornography, malware, and basic spam content.

Yahoo was said to have done this in order to "satisfy a secret court order," created to require the company to search for content containing a specific computer signature related to online communications of an unspecified state-sponsored terrorist group. Two of the anonymous sources -- referred to as "government officials" -- mentioned the Justice Department received the order from a judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court sometime last year, an order that Yahoo was "barred from disclosing" to the public.

yahoo
Through its modifications to the spam filter program, Yahoo complied with the Justice Department's order and made available any email that contained the signature, but as of now that collection method "is no longer taking place." The order was described as "unusual" because it required the scanning of individual emails instead of user accounts as a whole, and was allegedly only given to Yahoo as other tech companies, including Apple, have said they never encountered such a demand.

In response to a request for comment, an Apple spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “We have never received a request of this type. If we were to receive one, we would oppose it in court.”

A Microsoft spokesperson said, “We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo.”

A Google spokesperson told BuzzFeed News, “We’ve never received such a request, but if we did, our response would be simple: no way.”

According to the sources, federal investigators learned last year that members of a foreign terrorist organization were communicating using Yahoo's email service, through a method that used a "highly unique" designator, or signature, in each communication. Although built to look for specific content, the modified program's far-reaching scanning of each user on the service brought about unrest in the user base when the original report came out yesterday. Yahoo's compliance is also being contrasted to Apple's obstinate response in its battle with the FBI earlier in the year.

After the news broke, Yahoo said that the Reuters story was "misleading" and that the email scanning outlined in the report "does not exist on our systems." Compounding the company's woes, last month Yahoo confirmed that "at least" 500 million user accounts were compromised during an attack in late 2014, leaking customer information like names, email addresses, telephone numbers, birthdates, hashed passwords, and both encrypted and unencrypted security questions and answers. In the midst of all of this, Yahoo’s pending acquisition by Verizon could potentially face negative effects.

Note: Due to the political nature of the discussion regarding this topic, the discussion thread is located in our Politics, Religion, Social Issues forum. All forum members and site visitors are welcome to read and follow the thread, but posting is limited to forum members with at least 100 posts.

Tag: Yahoo

Top Rated Comments

Sedulous Avatar
83 months ago
If the supposed filter works as well as Yahoo's spam filter then the terrorists have nothing to worry about.
Score: 14 Votes (Like | Disagree)
CrickettGrrrl Avatar
83 months ago
I have a hard time believing the efficacy of this secret email filter, as Yahoo has been notoriously bad at filtering malware & spam. :rolleyes: It must have been super porous.

I also have a hard time believing anybody who has their life or super secret plans on the line would even think of using Yahoo email in the first place. So wouldn't it be a really stupid terrorist gang?
Score: 10 Votes (Like | Disagree)
keysofanxiety Avatar
83 months ago
It goes from bad to worse. Both hacked and spying government shills.

It's over, Yahoo!
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)
ptb42 Avatar
83 months ago
It's unlikely they just scanned "inboxes". That could have been accomplished by scanning incoming mail with a network sniffer, and Yahoo's cooperation wasn't needed for that.

This was most likely to look in folders OTHER than the inbox, particularly the Drafts folder.

A well-known circumvention of incoming email sniffing is to use the same account: composing a message and saving it in the Drafts folder. The recipient logs into the same account and reads the draft message, replying to it or deleting it.
Score: 7 Votes (Like | Disagree)
840quadra Avatar
83 months ago
I have a hard time believing that the government hasn't approached Google, or Microsoft with such questions. I could see them not asking Apple, simply due to their overall lack of marketshare.
Score: 5 Votes (Like | Disagree)
69Mustang Avatar
83 months ago
I have a hard time believing that the government hasn't approached Google, or Microsoft with such questions. I could see them not asking Apple, simply due to their overall lack of marketshare.
I don't understand the logic you're using. I hope you're not conflating phone marketshare with email client marketshare. There are several metrics showing the iPhone email client is the largest by a wide margin. To be fair, that could be a focus on mobile. To be even more fair, I didn't dig into how those metrics were obtained. Desktop and business client email may paint a different picture but I seriously doubt those would be the vector for terrorists. Regardless, you can't use phone marketshare as a reason for not asking Apple. It doesn't make sense.

Apple, Microsoft, and Google all state they haven't been approached with a request like this. Apple and Google were both pretty emphatic in their response. Hell no. Microsoft on the other hand, their response was a bit more vague and non-commital regarding their response if requested to do something similar.
"We have never engaged in the secret scanning of email traffic like what has been reported today about Yahoo." - Microsoft. If someone gave me a response like that, my first question would be "Well what kind of secret email scanning have you done?"
Score: 5 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Popular Stories

iOS 16

iOS 16.3 Now Available for Your iPhone With These 4 New Features

Friday February 3, 2023 1:13 pm PST by
Apple released iOS 16.3 in late January following nearly six weeks of beta testing. The software update is available for the iPhone 8 and newer, and while it is a relatively minor update, it still includes a handful of new features, changes, and bug fixes. Below, we've recapped new features in iOS 16.3, including support for physical security keys as a two-factor authentication option for...
ipad air purple

Deals: M1 iPad Air Hits Record-Low Prices at TigerDirect, Starting at $313.99 (48% Off)

Saturday February 4, 2023 10:05 am PST by
Online retailer TigerDirect has slashed pricing on the M1 iPad Air in several colors, offering the base 64GB configuration for just $313.99 in Purple and Pink. Note: MacRumors is an affiliate partner with TigerDirect. When you click a link and make a purchase, we may receive a small payment, which helps us keep the site running. That's a savings of 48% compared to Apple's normal $599.00...
Apple Silicon Teal Feature

The Next Big Apple Silicon Device May Not Be a Mac or iPad

Wednesday February 1, 2023 3:57 am PST by
Apple's next device with an Apple silicon chip may not be a Mac or an iPad, but rather an advanced external display, according to recent reports. The display, which is rumored to arrive this year, is expected to sit somewhere between the $1,599 Studio Display and the $4,999 Pro Display XDR – but more exact information about the device's positioning and price point is as yet unknown. While ...
iPhone 14 Pro Purple Side Perspective Feature Purple

Gurman: Apple Considering New High-End iPhone Alongside Pro and Pro Max

Sunday February 5, 2023 6:07 am PST by
Apple has discussed selling a new top-of-the-line iPhone alongside the Pro and Pro Max models in 2024 at the earliest, according to Bloomberg's Mark Gurman. Based on this timeframe, the device would be part of the iPhone 16 lineup or later. In a September 2022 edition of his weekly "Power On" newsletter, Gurman said there was "potential" for an iPhone 15 Ultra to replace the iPhone 15 Pro...
HomePod 2 White and Midnight Feature Purple Blue

Apple Explains Why HomePod Was Released Again, Wi-Fi 4 Limitation, and More

Thursday February 2, 2023 7:57 am PST by
Apple's VP of hardware engineering Matthew Costello and product marketing employee Alice Chan recently spoke with Men's Journal and TechCrunch about the new second-generation HomePod in wide-ranging interviews about the smart speaker. Apple discontinued the original full-size HomePod in March 2021 after multiple reports indicated that sales of the speaker were lackluster, but Chan told Men's ...
webkit vs chromium feature

Google Working on Browser for iOS That Would Break Apple's App Store Rules

Saturday February 4, 2023 1:30 am PST by
Google's Chromium developers are working on an experimental web browser for iOS that would break Apple's browser engine restrictions, The Register reports. The experimental browser, which is being actively pursued by developers, uses Google's Blink engine. Yet if Google attempted to release it on the App Store, it would not pass Apple's App Review process. Apple's App Store rules dictate...
iOS 16

Apple Preparing iOS 16.3.1 Update for iPhone as Wait for iOS 16.4 Beta Continues

Thursday February 2, 2023 6:41 am PST by
Apple appears to be preparing an iOS 16.3.1 update for the iPhone, based on evidence of the software in our website's analytics logs this week. It's unclear when the update will be released, but it will likely be available at some point in February. The same logs have accurately foreshadowed the release of several previous updates, including iOS 16.0.3 and iOS 16.1.1 most recently, so they...
maxresdefault

Hands-On With Apple's Second-Generation HomePod

Friday February 3, 2023 1:28 pm PST by
Today is the official launch day for the second-generation HomePod that was introduced in January, and we picked one up to compare it to the original HomePod that Apple discontinued in 2021. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. Design wise, the second-generation HomePod looks a lot like the first-generation model, featuring the same rounded design and acoustic mesh...