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Yahoo may have announced recently that hackers stole data from nearly 500 million users in 2014 but it conveniently neglected to mention that it was the perpetrator of an even bigger hack of Yahoo Mail accounts and private data.
According to a stunning report by Reuters, Yahoo built a secret software program last year that searched every single one of its customers’ incoming e-mails on behalf of U.S. intelligence officials, basically creating a Google-style search engine to sift through reams of Yahoo users’ data in real-time for specific phrases.
Three former employees have fessed up and disclosed that Yahoo scanned hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts in compliance with a classified request from an unknown government agency (possibly the NSA or FBI), which asked that Yahoo search all incoming e-mails for a set of characters (i.e. a phrase in an e-mail or attachment).
The company developed the snooping software during Marissa Meyer’s failed tenure as CEO, a move which did not sit well with some top Yahoo officials and led then-Chief Information Officer Alex Stamos to jump ship in June 2015. Stamos is currently the top security official at Facebook, whereas Yahoo ended up being sold to Verizon for a humiliating $4.8 billion earlier this year. It’s helpful to note, for a sense of scale, that Meyer ordered Yahoo’s 2013 acquisition of Tumblr for $1.1 billion, which proved to be a massive blunder that cost the company nearly a quarter of its worth.
Surveillance experts are calling the real-time surveillance of incoming e-mails an unprecedented move. While internet companies have handed over consumer data to government agencies, the data usually consisted of stored messages and was much more limited in scope. This is the first documented instance of a tech company creating a sweeping program to surveil its own users.
“Yahoo is a law abiding company, and complies with the laws of the United States,” the company said to Reuters and declined to comment further. Google and Microsoft, on the other hand, have cheerfully piped up and declared they never have and never would do anything similar to what Yahoo did.