Has someone been reading your emails?

If you are one of Yahoo’s remaining customers, Reuters’ fine piece of investigative journalism must have come as a shock. At some time in 2015, Reuters claims, a US government security agency (the NSA or FBI) served Yahoo with a demand, that it scanned all its customers incoming email messages for specific information, as determined by the agency, and passed those details on. Not only was this to be conducted in secret, but Yahoo was not to make any admission about the demand.

Reuters’ sources claim this programme was put into place, and has been happily searching through all those messages ever since. Yahoo has since claimed that this report is “misleading”, but hasn’t provided any clear rebuttal explaining what did happen.

There has also been an interesting series of responses from other major mail and messaging service providers, several of which have not established clearly whether they might also have received such a demand, or even acquiesced to it. For most of us, we’re left with that uneasy feeling that maybe something is scanning our messages, and we’re not going to get a clear answer, in which we can entrust our privacy.

For Yahoo, this is not such a surprise, though. Documents released by Edward Snowden revealed a surveillance programme named Optic Nerve, which collected still webcam images from Yahoo webcam chats in bulk, and saved them to GCHQ and NSA databases for further analysis. According to the Guardian’s account of this programme, in one period of six months in 2008, images were collected from more than 1.8 million Yahoo user accounts around the world. That programme is claimed to have operated in 2008-2010, and inevitably included a significant proportion of very personal, often sexually explicit images.

Then in late 2013, no less than six lawsuits were filed against Yahoo’s practice of automatic scanning of email messages to produce targeted advertising. Shockingly, instead of discontinuing the scanning of messages, Yahoo agreed that it would only send messages for analysis for advertising purposes after the user was able to collect each message in their inbox.

The prospect of bulk message scanning for the purposes of mass surveillance is about to get new impetus too.

The UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill (IP Bill), which I described here, is now coming up to its Report stage in the House of Lords, and short of a substantial miracle, looks set to come into force before the end of 2016. Unless the US has a swift and effective response to the current allegations about what happened at Yahoo last year, the security agencies in both the US and the UK will have all the powers that they need to implement major programmes of mass surveillance, including the scanning of much of our email traffic.

For the UK, the IP Bill makes specific provision for such ‘technical measures’ to be carried out in total secrecy, as they are claimed to have been in the Yahoo case. Mail and communications service providers face legal sanctions if they were to breathe a word of such programmes in public, and in the IP Bill, at least, such measures can be applied in any jurisdiction in the world – so long as they can get away with it.

In the UK, concerns about the IP Bill and its wholesale destruction of the right of privacy have been buried in the greater political upheaval over the intended departure from the EU. We are currently witnessing a whole series of measures, though, which provide the state with unprecedented powers. Most were symptomatic of the rise of the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in Germany prior to the Second World War – measures such as the registration of non-British citizens at their places of work, and of their children at their schools.

Officially, the sponsor of the IP Bill remains the former Home Secretary who seemed so keen to peer into our private lives, to read our emails, and to look through our webcam images. She is now the Prime Minister.

For once, I can claim some prescience in the matter too. Late in 2009, MacUser published my editorial comparing increasing surveillance to the vile practices of Stasi in East Germany: I called it The Browsing of Others. We urgently need the support of some powerful champions for privacy, like Apple’s Tim Cook.