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Yahoo to US government: Clarify email surveillance reports

The internet giant writes a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, asking him to shed more light on reports that Yahoo built spy tools to scan user emails.

Yahoo is asking the US government for more transparency around an alleged national security order.
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Yahoo is in the midst of a major controversy over alleged email surveillance, and now it's looking to set the record straight.

The internet giant on Wednesday sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, asking the NSA to shed more light on an alleged court order it sent the company.

The crux of the issue is a Reuters report from earlier this month that said the US government ordered Yahoo to build surveillance tools to scan through customer emails for intelligence information. Wednesday's letter, written by Yahoo General Counsel Ronald Bell, asks Clapper to confirm whether it did indeed issue an order, declassify it, and provide more context around it.

"Yahoo was mentioned specifically in these reports, and we find ourselves unable to respond in detail," Bell wrote.

In a blog post accompanying the letter, Yahoo called the press reports "misleading."

The letter says those press reports, coupled with a lack of transparency from the government, has caused speculation about Yahoo and its "approach" to privacy.

"That speculation results in part from a lack of transparency and because US laws significantly constrain -- and severely punish -- companies' ability to speak for themselves about national security related orders even in ways that do not compromise US government investigations," Bell wrote.

Clapper's press office did not immediately return a request for comment.

The letter comes during a particularly turbulent time for Yahoo. Aside from the email-scanning controversy, the company also disclosed last month that it suffered a massive data breach in 2014 that resulted in the personal information from half a billion Yahoo user accounts being stolen.

The breach has reportedly given Verizon, which said in July it agreed to buy Yahoo for $4.83 billion, pause regarding the deal. Verizon General Counsel Craig Silliman reportedly said his company is leaning toward considering the hacked accounts a "material" event, meaning it could have undercut Yahoo's financial value and made it less attractive as an acquisition. Those comments suggest Verizon might try to renegotiate the deal or possibly back out completely.