According to a report, the FBI has asked Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) to scan all the incoming emails of its users to find an unusual string of characters linked to a terrorist organization. There was suspicion that foreign terrorists were using the email service of Yahoo. All flagged messages were then forwarded to the investigating agency. Yahoo has however confirmed that the scans have stopped now.

Yahoo Searches for Digital Signature

It was also learned that the tech firm was searching for digital signature of a communication method, used by one state-sponsored terrorist group. The signature though has not been identified. Yahoo has also not confirmed whether any cryptographic computer code was involved.

The signature or identifier was detected in the investigation, but the company could not identify which email accounts were being used, and this is why Yahoo’s help was asked for. Actually, Yahoo was forced by a court order to scan the emails of their users. A judge with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court was convinced and issued the order.

It has been confirmed that it was the National Security Agency and not the U.S. Department of Justice that had this order asking Yahoo to do the scan.

Yahoo was asked to search for a “set of characters”, perhaps a phrase in an attachment or the email itself. The company then went ahead and searched millions of Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO) email accounts. Privacy advocates were outraged and said the email scanning could be unconstitutional.

Yahoo Declines

Yahoo came out with a statement, saying that the report was “misleading”, adding that it was “a law-abiding firm”. The company also said that the mail-scanning process “does not exist”. However, there was no comment on whether they have done so previously.

Cyber Spying Order Limits

There is strict electronic surveillance conditions as per the FISA or the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which was first passed in 1978. According to the law, a court can authorize surveillance if it is believed that suspects are planning an attack or carrying out espionage against the US.

The Bush administration allowed the NSA to bypass the court and do surveillance on al-Qaeda suspects without a warrant after the 9/11 attacks. Then in 2005, Congress gave immunity to firms that worked with the NSA. FISA amendments were also proposed.

Since 2008, officials have been allowed to monitor without identifying individual targets. All that is needed is a court order.