Yahoo Sells User’s Private Email Contents to U.S. Agencies
December 5, 2009
Yahoo isn’t happy that a detailed menu of the spying services it provides to “law enforcement” and spy agencies has leaked onto the web.
After earlier reports this week that Yahoo had blocked an FOIA Freedom of Information release of its “law enforcement and intelligence price list”, someone helpfully provided a copy of the Yahoo company’s spying guide to the whistleblower web site Cryptome.org.
The 17-page guide, which Yahoo has tried to suppress via legal letters to the Cryptome.org site run by freedom of information champion John Young, describes Yahoo’s policies on keeping the data of Yahoo Email and Yahoo Groups users, as well as the surveillance and spying capabilities it can give to the U.S. government and its agencies.
The Yahoo document is a price list for these spying services and has already resulted in many people closing down their accounts in protest. However, closing a Yahoo account is not as easy as one might expect: users have reported great difficulty in finding the link to delete their account, and, Yahoo will still keep data for another 90 days.
If you ask Yahoo! to delete your Yahoo! account, in most cases your account will be deactivated and then deleted from our user registration database in approximately 90 days. This delay is necessary to discourage users from engaging in fraudulent activity.
Please note that any information that we have copied may remain in back-up storage for some period of time after your deletion request. This may be the case even though no information about your account remains in our active user databases.
Many government leaders and officials around Africa, Asia and Latin America are known by Mathaba to widely be using Yahoo, Gmail, and Hotmail in spite of these Email services being hosted on U.S. computers and the ease that gives the hosts to access their data.. Mathaba has also long been aware of a great many business people, politicians and even Presidents who use the “free” web-based email services of Yahoo for their Email communications, thus making it easy for the U.S. and its owners to spy on them with negligible cost.
Cryptome also published lawful data-interception guides for Cox Communications, SBC, Cingular, Nextel, GTE and other telecoms and Internet service providers.
But of all those companies, it appears to be Yahoo’s lawyers alone who have been stupid enough to try to issue a “DMCA takedown notice” to Cryptome demanding the document be removed. Yahoo claims that publication of the document is a copyright violation, and gave Cryptome owner John Young a Thursday deadline for removing the document.
We estimate Yahoo stands a near-zero chance of success given that Young has thousands of intelligence and other leaked documents on his site and in the past decade has yet to remove a single document upon legal threats, the same 10-year track record held by Mathaba on documents on British Intelligence in spite of having computers seized and properties raided.
Mathaba is now also hosting the Yahoo leaked document on its servers around the world, and the cat is long out of the bag with the original document having been downloaded and distributed by many already.
When John Young was asked if there was anything he wouldn’t reveal on his site — a fault in the President’s Secret Service detail, for instance — he said, “Well, I’m actually looking for that information right now”, much to the chagrin of those who believe that the U.S. government and its hopelessly corrupt agencies should have a right to suppress information from the public.
The Compliance Guide reveals, as has been known to Mathaba prior to the leak via our own sources, that Yahoo does not retain a copy of e-mails that an account holder sends unless that customer sets up the account to store those e-mails. Yahoo also cannot search for or produce deleted e-mails once they’ve been removed from a user’s trash folder.
The guide also reveals that the company retains the IP addresses from which a user logs in for just one year. But the company’s logs of IP addresses used to register new accounts for the first time go back to 1999. The contents of accounts on Flickr, the photo sharing and storage site which Yahoo also owns, are purged as soon as a user deactivates the account.
Chats conducted through the company’s Web Messenger service may be saved on Yahoo’s server if one of the parties in the correspondence set up their account to archive chats. This pertains to the web-based version of the chat service, however. Yahoo does not save the content of chats for consumers who use the downloadable Web Messenger client on their computer.
Instant message logs are retained 45 to 60 days and includes an account holder’s friends list, and the date and times the user communicated with them.
Young responded to Yahoo’s takedown request with a defiant note:
I cannot find at the Copyright Office a grant of copyright for the Yahoo spying document hosted on Cryptome. To assure readers Yahoo’s copyright claim is valid and not another hoary bluff without substantiation so common under DMCA bombast please send a copy of the copyright grant for publication on Cryptome.
Note: Yahoo’s exclamation point is surely trademarked so omitted here.
The company responded that a copyright notice is optional for works created after March 1, 1989 and repeated its demand for removal on Thursday. For now, the document remains on the Cryptome site.
Threat Level reported Tuesday that muckraker and Indiana University graduate student Christopher Soghoian had asked all agencies within the Department of Justice, under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, to provide him with a copy of the pricing list supplied by telecoms and internet service providers for the surveillance services they offer government agencies. But before the agencies could provide the data, Verizon and Yahoo intervened and filed an objection on grounds that the information was proprietary and that the companies would be ridiculed and publicly shamed were their surveillance price sheets made public.
Yahoo wrote in its objection letter that if its pricing information were disclosed to Soghoian, he would use it “to ’shame’ Yahoo! and other companies — and to ’shock’ their customers.”
“Therefore, release of Yahoo!’s information is reasonably likely to lead to impairment of its reputation for protection of user privacy and security, which is a competitive disadvantage for technology companies,” the company added.
The price list that Yahoo tried to prevent the government from releasing to Soghoian appears in one small paragraph in the 17-page leaked document. According to this list, Yahoo charges the government about $30 to $40 for the contents, including e-mail, of a subscriber’s account. It charges $40 to $80 for the contents of a Yahoo group.
Facebook, Twitter, MySpace and other U.S. “social networking” sites are at minimum providing information in similar fashion to U.S. agencies, and in some cases have also received substantial funding by U.S. government related entities as a most efficient and cost-effective means of spying on their users around the world.
— Includes extensive reporting by Wired.com‘s Kim Zetter