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Yahoo doesn’t deny scanning users’ emails but calls report ‘misleading’

Yahoo
A hack that affected at least 500 million Yahoo accounts has raised questions about whether Verizon will ask for a discount or other changes to their deal.
(Ritchie B. Tongo / European Pressphoto Agency)

Yahoo Inc. responded again Wednesday to a report that it scanned incoming email to hundreds of millions of accounts for the U.S. government, looking for a specific phrase.

In a carefully worded statement that stops short of a denial, the Sunnyvale, Calif., company — which is selling its online operations to Verizon Communications Inc. for $4.8 billion — called Tuesday’s Reuters report “misleading,” saying that “the mail scanning described in the article does not exist on our systems.”

Reuters reported that Yahoo built custom software for the scans. Yahoo’s latest statement does not say whether the company has conducted such email scans in the past. It also does not say whether that software might exist outside its systems.

On Tuesday, Yahoo said only that it complies with U.S. law. On Wednesday, it said it interprets every government request for data “narrowly” to “minimize disclosure.”

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Reuters’ report, which cited anonymous former employees and a person with knowledge of the situation, did not identify the phrase sought in the emails. But it did narrow down the searching party to either the National Security Agency or FBI.

Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Mayer’s decision to obey the government demand apparently led to a major security hole in Yahoo’s email system, which frustrated the company’s security chief enough that he soon defected to Facebook Inc.

This year, Apple Inc. fended off the FBI’s demand that it develop software to unlock a cellphone used by one of the attackers in last year’s San Bernardino shooting. Apple expressed concerns about opening a security gap in its devices.

Yahoo publicly has championed similar practices to protect its users.

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Tuesday’s report came less than two weeks after Yahoo revealed an apparently unrelated 2014 security breach that affected at least 500 million of its user accounts. 

Yahoo said it believes that attack was state-sponsored, but it did not provide any information on how the hacker may have gotten into its systems. 

Times staff writers Paresh Dave and Tracey Lien contributed to this report. 

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UPDATES:

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2:20 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details and background information.

This article was originally published at 11:15 a.m.


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