NSA head denies 'blanket' email searches

NSA head denies 'blanket' email searches
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The head of the National Security Agency (NSA) on Wednesday appeared to downplay allegations in a recent report that claimed Yahoo developed a scanning software to help U.S. intelligence search its customers' incoming emails.

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“I would only comment — I’ve read this real quickly and thought, well, this is a little speculative,” Adm. Michael Rogers said at a cybersecurity summit in Cambridge, Mass., in apparent reference to the Yahoo report.

Rogers told CNBC’s Walter Isaacson that the NSA can’t get a judge’s approval to “blanket” search through "all email."

“That would be illegal. We don’t do that, and no court would ever grant us authority to do that,” Rogers said. “We have to make a specific case. What the court grants is specific authority for a specific period of time for a specific purpose.”

Yahoo has called the story “misleading,” arguing that “the mail scanning described in the article does not exist in our systems.”

“We narrowly interpret every government request for user data to minimize disclosure,” the company said in a statement.

Under current U.S. law, intelligence agencies can also apply for a surveillance warrant before a clandestine court known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. 

They can issue what are known as "national security letters," which are similar to subpoenas but do not require a judge's approval and are used to demand companies turn over information in national security investigations. 

They can also search communications without a warrant if they are "targeting" foreigners, using identifiers like email addresses.

According to the Reuters report Tuesday, Yahoo allegedly developed a program to scan incoming email and attachments for certain phrases to comply with a classified directive sent to Yahoo's legal team.

The report indicated that the software was developed without consultation with Yahoo's security team, including prominent then-Chief Information Security Officer Alex Stamos.

Reuters says Stamos left the company after his team discovered the surveillance software, which it initially believed to be hackers attacking the system.

The report also said employees were disappointed that CEO Marissa Mayer decided to accept the 2015 directive and not challenge the order in court.

The revelations sparked swift outrage from privacy advocates Tuesday, some of whom argued that it demonstrated the failure of post-Edward Snowden reform efforts to curb the NSA’s data collection.

"If true, the government's directive to Yahoo to write a software program and search all of its customers' incoming emails for certain content is a gross abuse of federal power," Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "Private sector companies and private citizens are not an arm of law enforcement or an extension of our intelligence agencies."

"The NSA has said it only targets individuals under Section 702 by searching for email address and similar identifiers," said Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenHillicon Valley: Twitter says Trump 'go back' tweet didn't violate rules | Unions back protests targeting Amazon 'Prime Day' | Mnuchin voices 'serious concerns' about Facebook crypto project | Congress mobilizes on cyber threats to electric grid Top Democrat demands answers on election equipment vulnerabilities Advocates frustrated over pace of drug price reform MORE (D-Ore.). "If that has changed, the executive branch has an obligation to notify the public."