Report: Yahoo Secretly Scanned Customer Emails for the U.S. Government

October 5, 2016 Updated: October 5, 2016

Yahoo used a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for information on behalf of U.S. intelligence officials, according to a new report.

Reuters, citing people close to the matter, said Yahoo “secretly built” the software, using it to comply with demands made by the U.S. government. The firm scanned hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail emails for the National Security Agency or the FBI, the four people familiar with the matter told the news agency.

It’s unclear what information intelligence officials were trying to discover. The Reuters report said they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters, which could mean an attachment or a phrase in an email.

It is furthermore not clear what data Yahoo may have handed over to the authorities.

The report appears to counter what Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer said in the firm’s recent transparency report. “We’ve worked hard over the years to earn our users’ trust and we fight hard to preserve it,” she said.

In a statement to Reuters, the company said that “Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” without offering any elaboration or further comment.

Yahoo, via PR company The Joele Frank Team, issued another statement to The Intercept about a day later, saying that the Reuters article is “misleading” and “we narrowly interpret every government request for user data to minimize disclosure.” It added, “The mail scanning described in the article does not exist on our systems.”

Reuters noted, based on comments from experts, it’s the first time an American Internet company has agreed to meet the demands from a U.S. intelligence agency to conduct surveillance on a widespread scale.

The report raised concerns about whether other tech giants were engaging in similar practices.

When asked, a Facebook spokesperson told The Intercept: “Facebook has never received a request like the one described in these news reports from any government, and if we did we would fight it.”

A Google spokesperson issued a similar statement: “We’ve never received such a request, but if we did, our response would be simple: ‘no way.'”

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