It is becoming increasingly clear that last year, the government ordered Yahoo to search its entire user email database and Yahoo’s response was, “no problem”. According to the New York Times, Yahoo was forbidden from disclosing the order and the collection is no longer taking place, but if they’re forbidden from disclosing, how would we really know that? Moreover, if that particular collection has stopped, who is to say that there aren’t other searches ongoing that still have not been disclosed. Is the government co-opting other technology companies to do their snooping for them? Yahoo has responded that Reuter’s original reporting of this was “misleading”, But again how would we really know? All of this is done under the veil of secrecy.
Every time the issue of privacy comes up, I feel like a bit of a dinosaur. I think privacy is a fundamental right and one upon which the United States was founded. It is baffling to me that these big companies, with presumably teams of lawyers, can just roll over so easily when the government asked them to search their entire email database.
If you could pretend for a moment that the Internet and email didn’t exist and discovered that the US Postal Service was opening and scanning every piece of mail that went through on the lookout for some particular piece of correspondence involving a terrorist or a foreign government, you would probably be outraged. I would be. The difference between that hypothetical world and the one we live in is that the Internet and email does exist and it is technically possible to pull something off like a search of all of Yahoo’s email for all of its users. Put simply, they are doing this because they can. Moreover, the government has shown very little restraint in asking for that type of information. This request may have been for an entirely legitimate reason. However, once you open up that door, it is going to be very difficult to close it.
At a minimum, I believe there should have been public disclosure and the courts should have had an opportunity to weigh in before the government was given such sweeping power. I can’t help but feel that Yahoo let the government off way too easy here and if I were a Yahoo email subscriber (I am not) I would be looking for new options … today.