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
77 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
77 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
77 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
77 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
77 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
77 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

iPhone 14 Dummies 1 Feature

Everything Rumored for Apple's September Event: iPhone 14, Apple Watch Pro and More

Friday August 12, 2022 2:34 pm PDT by
There's just about a month to go until Apple holds its annual September event focusing on new iPhone and Apple Watch models. We thought we'd take a quick look at everything that's rumored for Apple's September event to give MacRumors readers a rundown on what to expect when the first fall event rolls around. iPhone 14 The iPhone 14 can probably be described more as an "iPhone 13S" because...
z fold 4 1

Hands-On With Samsung's Latest Foldable Smartphones, the Galaxy Z Fold and Z Flip

Friday August 12, 2022 12:46 pm PDT by
Samsung this week launched its fourth-generation foldable devices, the $1,000 Galaxy Z Flip and the $1,800 Galaxy Z Fold. Though there's no sign of a comparable Apple foldable device on the horizon, rumors suggest prototypes are in the works, so we thought we'd take a look at Samsung's newest smartphones to see what Apple needs to measure up to when a foldable iPhone does come out. Subscribe ...
iPhone 14 Pro Purple Rear Flat MacRumors Exclusive

iPhone 14 Pro: Analyst Believes Storage Will Continue to Start at 128GB Despite Rumored Price Increase

Friday August 12, 2022 7:04 am PDT by
It wouldn't be the month before an iPhone launch without a few back-and-forth rumors, with the latest debate concerning iPhone 14 Pro storage. iPhone 14 Pro render by Ian Zelbo While research firm TrendForce forecasted that iPhone 14 Pro models could start with an increased 256GB of storage, Haitong International analyst Jeff Pu today forecasted that the upcoming Pro models will continue to...
iPhone 14 Pro Purple Front and Back MacRumors Exclusive feature

iPhone 14 Is Just a Few Weeks Away: Three Tips to Prepare for the New iPhone

Wednesday August 10, 2022 4:08 am PDT by
The launch of the new iPhone 14 is just a few weeks away, meaning millions of iPhone customers will soon upgrade their existing iPhone or perhaps get an iPhone for the first time. Exclusive MacRumors iPhone 14 Pro renders by graphic designer Ian Zelbo Whether upgrading from an older model or this is your first iPhone, we've rounded up a few tips to help you prepare for the next flagship...
iPhone 14 Pro Lineup Feature Silver

Kuo: Apple to Increase Prices of iPhone 14 Pro Models

Wednesday August 10, 2022 8:22 am PDT by
Apple plans to increase the prices of iPhone 14 Pro models compared to iPhone 13 Pro models, according to analyst Ming-Chi Kuo. Kuo did not reveal exact pricing for the iPhone 14 Pro models. However, in a tweet today, he estimated that the average selling price of the iPhone 14 lineup as a whole will increase by about 15% compared to the iPhone 13 lineup. In the United States, the iPhone...
top stories 13aug2022

Top Stories: New Battery Percentage Icon in iOS 16, USB-C AirPods Rumor, and More

Saturday August 13, 2022 6:00 am PDT by
This week brought some shocking news for iOS 16 beta testers, with Apple bringing back the iPhone battery percentage to the status bar after a number of years. Other news and rumors this week included word that Apple has started recording portions of its media event planned for next month to introduce the iPhone 14 and Apple Watch Series 8, claims about iPhone 14 Pro pricing and Apple's...