News this week that Yahoo secretly monitored hundreds of millions of user emails at the behest of federal intelligence agencies triggered condemnation and outrage from privacy advocates and civil liberties groups — and rightfully so.
But the biggest surprise to come out this budding scandal is that anybody would be surprised.
Reuters reported Tuesday that the government asked Yahoo to scan incoming user email for certain phrases and words. Yahoo responded by writing a program that complied with the request, the wire service revealed.
"It's really staggering in its breadth," Andrew Crocker, an attorney with the Electronic Freedom Foundation, told USA Today. "It's hard to even anticipate what kind of arguments the government could make for the constitutionality or legality of this program."
Not really. Government law enforcement officials in recent years have taken the position that they don't run afoul of the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches and seizures when they commandeer a third-party private entity to do their dirty work.
"The Department of Justice now claims that, under the Fourth Amendment, it can simply subpoena an Internet company like Facebook and demand that they turn over all the records they have on" a certain subject, Peter Van Buren wrote two years ago in Mother Jones magazine. "Their explanation: The DOJ isn't doing the searching, just demanding that another organization do it."
To make matters worse, it is illegal for companies such as Yahoo, Google or Twitter to go public when federal snoops drop by with "information requests."
In recent years, many tech companies have come into conflict with federal agencies over access to customer data. Apple and Microsoft, for instance, have fought law enforcement efforts to seek private communications. In the Yahoo case, company officials apparently took the path of least resistance and just rolled over.
"This is a clear sign that people can trust neither their government nor their service providers to respect their privacy," an Amnesty International tech expert told The Associated Press.
If the Bill of Rights is to survive, the courts must reassert their authority as a check on government overreach and demand that federal agents obtain warrants before seeking access to the personal information and communications of millions of Americans. Consumers must also play a role by signaling they won't tolerate tech companies unwilling to fight for their privacy.
If we complacently shrug off such intrusions as the inevitable consequence of our quest for security, we'll ultimately get what we deserve.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD