Yahoo’s reported use of custom-built software to scan its users’ emails on behalf of federal investigators rekindled concerns this week over how the government goes about secretly using its surveillance authority.
The internet company found itself in critics’ crosshairs for the second time in as many weeks Tuesday after Reuters saidYahoo built a specialized program to search the incoming emails of its hundreds of millions of customers for the U.S. government.
“Yahoo is a law-abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” the company responded in the wake of the report.
While the latest claims may momentarily distract from the massive 2014 data breach revealed by Yahoo only late last month, the most recent revelations have already raised questions regarding the government’s use of secret surveillance law and the possible constitutional violations exhibited by the Reuters report.
“This is big brother on steroids and it must be stopped,” Rep. Ted Lieu, California Democrat, said in a statement.
“If true, the government’s directive to Yahoo to write a software program and search all of its customers’ incoming emails for certain content is a gross abuse of Federal power,” continued Mr. Lieu, a computer scientist who sits on the House Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on Information Technology. “Private sector companies and private citizens are not an arm of law enforcement or an extension of our intelligence agencies.”
Speaking to Ars Technica, Mr. Lieu said the government’s actions as outlined in the Reuters report are “flat out unconstitutional” and epitomizes the need to reform the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the panel that authorizes these sorts of spy orders.
“The continuing revelation of our law enforcement and these agencies violating the Constitution shows that there is a break down in oversight,” he told the tech blog. “The [Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court] has shown repeatedly that they do not have the ability to protect the Constitution or the rights of Americans, we need another system — thank God we have freedom of the press.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon Democrat, said the Reuters report raises questions about how the government may be interpreting a provision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), Section 702, to get away with mass spying.
“The NSA has said that it only targets individuals under Section 702 by searching for email addresses and similar identifiers,” the staunch surveillance critic told reporters Tuesday. “If that has changed, the executive branch has an obligation to notify the public.”
Under Section 702, U.S. investigators are allowed to collect the international communications of American citizens during the course of conducting a terrorism or other high-stakes crime probe.
Yahoo agreed to scan its users’ email after being served with a classified U.S. government directive by either the National Security Agency or FBI, Reuters reported. Either agency could have evoked FISA to obtain any content created, communicated or stored across Yahoo’s vast services, according to the company’s own previous admissions.
The NSA’s director, Navy Adm. Mike Rogers, neither confirmed nor denied the Reuters report when asked about the alleged blanket surveillance during an event Wednesday, an NBC News journalist tweeted.