If you have a Yahoo email account, it’s safe assume that your inbox is not private, if the latest news on government spying is true. Now what?
The new video game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided includes a scene where a hacker claims the “end of privacy” happened after people started accepting free email accounts. The game is fiction, but may be much closer to reality after a new Reuters report suggests Yahoo is allowing the federal government to take a peek at their email accounts.
“Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers’ incoming emails for specific information provided by U.S. intelligence officials, according to people familiar with the matter,” the report states. “The company complied with a classified U.S. government demand, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts at the behest of the National Security Agency or FBI, said three former employees and a fourth person apprised of the events.”
Reuters also claims the government sent an “edict” to Yahoo, demanding the California-based company create the program. Yahoo’s decision may have caused the resignation of former Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos, who’s now at Facebook. Yahoo’s own transparency page claims the feds asked for information on over 9,300 accounts but were only given information for 3,800 or so ones. This means Yahoo is either purposefully deceiving their account holders, or the sources Reuters used are wrong.
“Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” A Yahoo spokesperson told Reuters, which doesn’t necessarily help the company’s case at all. There’s a big difference between complying with “the laws of the United States,” and following the Constitution. Just ask Apple, following their high-stakes game of chicken with the government last year.
What’s interesting is Yahoo had previously fought the government’s attempt to get into their accounts, but didn’t win. Reuters writes the court transcript is redacted, so it isn’t known what defense Yahoo used or how the government won the case. But Yahoo’s apparent decision to go along with the feds shows they either didn’t have the stomach for a new battle or figured they could get a favor at some point in the future.
The reaction from privacy advocates was quick, direct, and rather pointed.
“Yahoo’s actions providing the federal government with real-time access to private emails once again shines a light on the deep flaws that exist with respect to our right to privacy in the digital world,” FreedomWorks’ Dr. Wayne Brough told me in a statement, “Such activity threatens the fundamental freedoms of every American and highlights the need for reform and oversight of the NSA’s and FBI’s domestic surveillance activities.”
The ACLU’s Patrick Toomey also decried Yahoo’s alleged actions. “Based on this report, the order issued to Yahoo appears to be unprecedented and unconstitutional. The government appears to have compelled Yahoo to conduct precisely the type of general, suspicionless search that the Fourth Amendment was intended to prohibit.”
There are people who support the Yahoo-federal government relationship under the notion it may actually keep people safe. “Now it’s become the more intellectually hip position to be paranoid about this sort of thing,” Ace at Ace of Spades opined. “I don’t really see how you can demand that our intelligence agencies to connect the dots without allowing them to gather some dots in the first place…we learned they were doing was pretty much what I expected they would be doing – and pretty much what I thought most on the right understood they would be doing, too.”
Ace also compares NSA spying to what private companies, like Google, do when someone does a web search. Someone else, who doesn’t support NSA spying, had a similar complaint about data being gobbled up by Microsoft or Apple, so they knew what their customers are doing in their spare time. It seems like a logical line of thinking, and a great way to “fight back” against privacy advocates, who don’t want their data tracked.
The only issue with this line of thinking is the fact Apple and Microsoft give users the option to turn off the data collection. People who don’t want to use Google as their search engine can go to duckduckgo or Start Page to search without being tracked. There’s no “off switch” from U.S. government spying, unless you decide to move into some underground bunker without access to the Internet or cell phones.
One interesting note is the fact backdoors for U.S. agencies may make people less safe, not more.
“Strong encryption is a good thing for American national security,” Snoopwall CEO Gary Miliefsky told me when asked about cybersecurity and backdoors into phones and emails. “When you make a backdoor for (the feds) you’re making a backdoor for North Korean cyber army, the Russians, the Chinese, cyber-criminals.”
He points to the 2007 hack of T.J. Maxx, where 47.5M credit card numbers were stolen by a hacker, and the CEO most likely decided raising prices was the best way to recoup lost money. “It harmed the banks. It harmed the consumers, who lose their identity,” Miliefsky said. “And then, ultimately, it harmed the consumer shoppers who go back to the store and not notice that shirt that used to be $37 is now $42, right? Every time there’s a breach, someone has to pay for it. And ultimately it will affect our citizens and national security.”
It’s important to note the U.S. government doesn’t exactly have a good track record at keeping its own files safe. OPM was hacked by the Chinese. Secretary of State John Kerry admitted he wrote emails thinking the Chinese and Russians were reading them. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s private server was targeted by multiple foreign hackers. What’s to stop hackers from slipping into a federal government system to steal more data because there’s a backdoor in an email provider? Supporters of federal cyber-spying need to consider this, before shrugging and going, “meh,” at the latest report on tech backdoors.
There’s an even bigger question supporters of this spying should consider. This is the same government which has had the IRS target groups with the words “Tea Party” or “patriots” in them. It’s also the same government which has an agency which allegedly considers you a potential terrorist if you write words like “Elvis,” “Texas,” “NRO,” “Trump,” and “Cowboy” in emails. This government’s No Fly List includes people like sitting congressmen and young children, and is considering taking away due process rights of people on this list to “keep this country safe.”
What’s to stop this same government from deciding the words, “conservative,” “freedom,” “libertarian,” “progressive,” “liberal,” “Constitution,” or “constitutional rights” are a threat, along with anyone who uses them? What’s to keep them from hacking into email accounts, pulling phone logs, or conducting audits in the hope of trying to find one simple reason to keep spying on U.S. citizens who are not suspected of committing an actual crime? Or worse, what would stop the government from labeling people as terrorists, based solely on what they have in their inboxes? The next step would be to put U.S. citizens in prison, without access to a lawyer, all in the name of “national security.” It’s certainly possible…if the wrong people get in power.