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The Cyber Boogeyman: Yahoo Email Surveillance

computer boogeyman email surveillanceIt seems like only a moment ago that we last reported on a massive security concern at Yahoo, mostly because it was. Now on the heels of the historic Yahoo account hack they’re back in the news with something that many people may find even more unsettling. It was reported earlier this week that Yahoo colluded with federal investigators to institute a widespread email surveillance campaign using their spam filter technology. And seeing as how we celebrate Halloween all month around here at VirtualPBX, unwarranted email surveillance seems like an appropriate campfire story to tell in Silicon Valley.

How Yahoo Email Surveillance Works

As reported by the New York Times, Yahoo’s cooperation with the feds to monitor potentially billions of personal email messaging was alarmingly simple. The company merely duplicated their spam filter and recalibrated it to focus on keywords and phrases that the government was interested in. Plus, as it turns out, we may have unknowingly assisted them in the process. Much like the algorithms that power the Yahoo search engine itself, our participation with email messages, flagging of spam, and engagement with content all serve to improve the efficacy of the core technology behind this email surveillance. Effectively, every minute we spent anywhere within the Yahoo network of services was merely adding potency to the tools they used to monitor Yahoo email accounts. We won’t likely ever know what those topics were and it’s unclear what the exact dates and scope of the email surveillance occurred during, but it’s safe to say that the potential widespread violation of privacy is unprecedented.

How to Protect Yourself

The official company statement was vague enough to not confirm or deny that something like this email surveillance ever occurred but pointed enough to say they don’t have this exact system in place today. Comforting, right? Moving forward, this may have damaged public opinion for Yahoo bad enough that people will begin flocking to other email clients nonetheless. While it’s fairly obvious that no company would ever admit to currently conducting widespread email surveillance without a court order, you can be safe to say that the other big email options claim to not participate in this practice. Of course, for the more cynical or merely the more cautious of you out there, other private electronic communications options do exist.

If you want to move on from Yahoo, start by deleting your account and then research these alternate, and heavily encrypted communications options. What you won’t find in them is a lot of the integration or maybe the high-gloss design you’re accustomed to, but where they lack in APIs they excel in tinfoil hat levels of paranoid protection. If you want even more coverage than from just the platforms you communicate over, you can take it one step further and start using Yahoo surveillance blocking phones that are built to be as untraceable as your new private email server.

Ultimately It’s a Choice

Whether you are all-in with the Big Brother conspiracies and live off the grid or you freely share your data with all of the companies that sell it to marketers who want to know more about you, there is clearly a gradient of cyber participation that dictates, to a degree, your cyber security. That said, it’s tough to argue that warrantless email surveillance is a good thing no matter how embedded a user chooses to be with technology. What I want to stress is that while there are some cyber boogeymen like this one out there that we can never fully anticipate, that doesn’t mean you can’t still have a safe and private cyber life if you just take the right precautions.

For more on the topic of corporations violating our civil rights and the tips and tricks to protect yourself in this increasingly connected world, make sure to follow us on Twitter and like us on Facebook. And though this cyber boogeyman story is one for the books, just try not to scare your coworkers during the next team building ropes-course out in the woods with it.