Yahoo's Spying Email Scanner A Clear Sign Of U.S. Government Efforts To Overstep Constitutional Privacy Rights

The growing consensus is that the U.S. government is overstepping its bounds and trampling on people's right to privacy. Former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the whistle on the government's vast spying program, and while that was an eye opener for the country (and world) at large, the full extent of its efforts are still coming to light. The most recent example is the email scanner Yahoo built under the direction of the NSA and FBI.

Developed in secret, the email scanner was found to be a sophisticated hacking tool, or rootkit, as some experts have classified it. The email scanner gave the U.S. government the ability to spy on millions of Yahoo Mail users without their knowledge or consent. It is such a breach of trust that other major corporations felt compelled to go on the record saying they do not snoop on email for the government, including Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter.


Intelligence officials and others familiar with the government's strategy of snooping on citizens told Reuters that government officials have been trying for decades to change the interpretation of the U.S. Constitution's Fourth Amendment, which protects the people's right against "unreasonable searches and seizures." More specifically, the government has been pushing courts to focus on what is "reasonable" and not so much on what makes something distinct.

The reason that is important is because so much of information is in digital form these days, and people are making that information available to a variety of businesses. Having automated software scan that data is technically considered a search, but not necessarily unreasonable if a human is looking at it. Using sophisticated software tools, this allows the government to be increasingly intrusive.


Obviously not everyone agrees with this approach. Civil liberty groups argue that scanning large buckets of online data runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment, especially when it happens without a court order, as there are many messages that are innocent in nature.

Robert Litt, general counsel of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), thinks that mass scanning is justified. He likens the practice to scanning for viruses and doesn't believe that sifting automated searches through an email service provider should not require a warrant. He will leave his position when President-elect Donald Trump replaces Barack Obama next month.

The government is not likely to change its position in the near future. Mike Pompeo, the person Trump nominated to be director of the CIA, wrote an opinion piece earlier this year pushing for the expansion of bulk data collection in regards to telephone calls. It is difficult to imagine him spearheading an effort to reduce government spying.