Yahoo! has asked the US government to break its silence on the secret court order that forced the Purple Palace to scan its webmail users' messages for specific keywords.
In a letter [PDF] to US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Yahoo! general counsel Ron Bell says that national security laws prevent the online service from being able to reveal exactly what information it pulled from people's private mail and why it did so.
Bell begins by referencing the multiple reports that have emerged about the alleged program, in which Yahoo! has been accused of quietly installing a buggy kernel-level module in its Linux servers to sniff incoming network traffic and pull out conversations for the NSA or FBI to inspect.
This software was apparently hidden from Yahoo!'s own internal security team – a move that led to the web giant's chief security officer quitting in protest. It was installed following a secret order granted by America's Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, it is understood.
"Yahoo was mentioned in these stories and we find ourselves unable to respond in detail," Bell writes, urging the US government to explain the situation for it: "Your office, however, is well-positioned to clarify this matter of public interest."
The Yahoo! letter goes on to state that the company would like to be more open to the public and that it "consistently campaigns for government transparency about national security requests."
Bell then goes on to suggest that the government loosen its hold on companies from being able to share further details with the public about how and when it is asked to hand over people's private information.
"Recent news stories have provoked broad speculation about Yahoo's approach and about the activities and representations of the US government, including those made by the government in connection with negotiating Privacy Shield with the European Union."
"That speculation results in part from 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."
The letter comes as Yahoo! finds itself trying to tamp down the outcry over not only the government dealings, but also security concerns from a massive hack on the Mail service that has thrown its $4.8bn acquisition at the hands of Verizon into some doubt. ®