Yahoo revealed on Wednesday that it has submitted a letter to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper demanding transparency involving national security orders issued to tech companies around obtaining user data. The move is intended to provide citizens insight about what the U.S. government is looking for.
The company acknowledged that while its communication makes “specific reference to recent allegations” levied against it, “it is intended to set a stronger precedent of transparency for our users and all citizens who could be affected by government requests for user data.” Yahoo once again denied reports that stated it secretly scanned customer emails on behalf of the intelligence community: “The mail scanning described in the article does not exist in our systems.”
In the letter, Yahoo’s general counsel Ron Bell argues that transparency “underpins the ability of any company in the information and communications technology sector to earn and preserve the trust of its customers. Erosion of that trust online implicates the safety and security of people around the world and diminishes confidence and trust in U.S. businesses at home and beyond our borders.”
The company has requested clarification from Director Clapper over national security letters in order to not only improve the industry, but also to give Yahoo the capability to defend its name.
National security orders originate from specific legal authorities within the U.S. government, namely through so-called FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) courts. Oftentimes, acknowledging that one has received a letter can be illegal, but in the aftermath of Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing and uncloaking of the NSA’s PRISM program, tech companies such as Apple, Dropbox, Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Microsoft, and Yahoo have released periodic transparency reports to show what government requests they’ve received.
This isn’t the first time that Yahoo has fought for transparency. It’s one of the few companies to have gone toe-to-toe with the federal government, even suing it over their inability to reveal national security orders. In June, a gag order was lifted and Yahoo became the first company to publicly acknowledge having received a national security letter.
Updated as of 2:04 p.m. Pacific on Wednesday: Reuters reports that the DNI will respond to Yahoo’s letter asking for clarification.
UPDATE: Director of National Intelligence's office says will respond to Yahoo's letter asking for clarification on national security orders
— Reuters Tech News (@ReutersTech) October 19, 2016
Alex Abdo, an attorney from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has also weighed in on this issue, telling VentureBeat: “The government should absolutely respond to Yahoo’s request for greater transparency. Years after the Snowden revelations, the government still appears not to have learned the importance of meaningful transparency about the scope of its surveillance authorities. Without that basic information, the public cannot understand or debate the wisdom and legality of those authorities.”