Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The Yahoo-email-search story is garbage

Joseph Menn (Reuters) is reporting that Yahoo! searched emails for the NSA. The details of the story are so mangled that it's impossible to say what's actually going on.

The first paragraph says this:
Yahoo Inc last year secretly built a custom software program to search all of its customers' incoming emails
The second paragraph says this:
The company complied with a classified U.S. government demand, scanning hundreds of millions of Yahoo Mail accounts
Well? Which is it? Did they "search incoming emails" or did they "scan mail accounts"? Whether we are dealing with emails in transmit, or stored on the servers, is a BFD (Big Fucking Detail) that you can't gloss over and confuse in a story like this. Whether searches are done indiscriminately across all emails, or only for specific accounts, is another BFD.

The third paragraph seems to resolve this, but it doesn't:
Some surveillance experts said this represents the first case to surface of a U.S. Internet company agreeing to an intelligence agency's request by searching all arriving messages, as opposed to examining stored messages or scanning a small number of accounts in real time.
Who are these "some surveillance experts"? Why is the story keeping their identities secret? Are they some whistleblowers afraid for their jobs? If so, then that should be mentioned. In reality, they are unlikely to be real surveillance experts, but just some random person that knows slightly more about the subject than Joseph Menn, and their identities are being kept secret in order to prevent us from challenging these experts -- which is a violation of journalistic ethics.

And, are they analyzing the raw information the author sent them? Or are they opining on the garbled version of events that we see in the first two paragraphs.

The confusion continues:
It is not known what information intelligence officials were looking for, only that they wanted Yahoo to search for a set of characters. That could mean a phrase in an email or an attachment, said the sources, who did not want to be identified.
What the fuck is a "set of characters"??? Is this an exact quote for somewhere? Or something the author of the story made up? The clarification of what this "could mean" doesn't clear this up, because if that's what it "actually means", then why not say this to begin with?

It's not just technical terms, but also legal ones:
The request to search Yahoo Mail accounts came in the form of a classified edict sent to the company's legal team, according to the three people familiar with the matter.
What the fuck is a "classified edict"? An NSL? A FISA court order? What? This is also a BFD.

We outsiders already know about the NSA/FBI's ability to ask for strong selectors (email addresses). What what we don't know about is their ability to search all emails, regardless of account, for arbitrary keywords/phases. If that's what's going on, then this would be a huge story. But the story doesn't make it clear that this is actually what's going on -- just strongly implies it.

There are many other ways to interpret this story. For example, the government may simply be demanding that when Yahoo satisfies demands for emails (based on email addresses), that it does so from the raw incoming stream, before it hits spam/malware filters. Or, they may be demanding that Yahoo satisfies their demands with more secrecy, so that the entire company doesn't learn of the email addresses that a FISA order demands. Or, the government may be demanding that the normal collection happen in real time, in the seconds that emails arrive, instead of minutes later.

Or maybe this isn't an NSA/FISA story at all. Maybe the DHS has a cybersecurity information sharing program that distributes IoCs (indicators of compromise) to companies under NDA. Because it's a separate program under NDA, Yahoo would need to setup a email malware scanning system separate from their existing malware system in order to use those IoCs. (@declanm's stream has further variations on this scenario).

My point is this: the story is full of mangled details that really tell us nothing. I can come up with multiple, unrelated scenarios that are consistent with the content in the story. The story certainly doesn't say that Yahoo did anything wrong, or that the government is doing anything wrong (at least, wronger than we already know).

I'm convinced the government is up to no good, strong arming companies like Yahoo into compliance. The thing that's stopping us from discovering malfeasance is poor reporting like this.


Unknown said...

"reporters are so shitty at reporting the details"
That's what happens after decades of ideology inbreeding.
All major medias are not about facts, but narrative.

Harv said...

I know of an organisation that gets paid by the consumer to find illogic/spin/slant and rate specific articles, highlighting what's data and what's just emotionality charged nonsense. Let me contact you privately if you want more info!

Softwar said...

"People don't want the facts... they want to be entertained."

My ex-editor on the day I quit being a reporter.

Unknown said...

Oh fer fuck's sake. Yahoo admitted it!


William Braylen said...

The Internet is, point of fact in desperate need of some genuine policing, seeing a portion of the adverts that are being put nowadays is equal to listening to an East end auto sales representative on steroids. Obviously we do have Google doing their bit (or so they say), to give a vastly improved support of their clients. An administration I am sorry to learn, that is about as just and reasonable as the Witch Finder General. When you or I confer some minor transgression, in the operation or upkeep of our site, these huge organizations won't dither to venture in and slap your wrist.