Yahoo Denies Spying On Mail Users

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Consumer group Which? claims that Yahoo is snooping on users’ mail, but Yahoo says this is standard practice

Yahoo has defended itself against accusations by consumer watchdog Which? that the recently revised terms and conditions of its Mail service violate Internet users’ privacy.

The argument centres around Section C of Yahoo Mail‘s ‘Additional Terms Of Service’, which reads: “By using the Services, you consent to allow Yahoo’s automated systems to scan and analyse all incoming and outgoing communications content sent and received from your account (such as Mail and Messenger content including instant messages and SMS messages).”

Which? claims that this gives Yahoo the right to read messages within its members’ Mail and Messenger accounts, including those sent to them by non-members.

“This is a blatant intrusion of privacy,” said Sarah Kidner, editor of Which? Computing. “People should have the right to send messages without Yahoo snooping through them.”

Standard practice

However, a Yahoo spokesperson told eWEEK Europe that Yahoo’s new terms and conditions do not differ greatly from those of other free webmail services (such as Google Mail). The emails are scanned by a machine – not a person – which searches for keywords in order to filter out spam, he said. This will also be used to serve targeted advertising in the future.

Yahoo Mail users are given the option of whether or not to accept the update – which offers improved performance, enhanced spam protection and a customisable inbox – via a pop-up notice which outlines the new terms of service and privacy policy. By accepting the update, the user automatically agrees to additional scanning.

“We think transparency is key because our business depends almost entirely on the trust of our users,” said Yahoo in a statement. “We therefore ask users (via a pop-up notice) for consent to the extension of machine-scanning inbound and outbound emails to look for keywords and links to further protect you from spam, surface photos and in time, serve users with interest-based advertising.

“If you prefer not to consent, you can remain on our existing mail, although we will, as Yahoo and other free webmail service providers do, continue to machine scan emails to protect against spam,” the company added.

Third parties vulnerable?

As for those people who send email messages to Yahoo Mail customers, they must rely on the recipient to inform them of the scanning measures. However, according to Senior Which? in-house lawyer Georgina Nelson, this is impractical.

“The obligation to notify those who email you that their message will be scanned is nonsensical and unrealistic,” said Nelson. “When exactly are you supposed to do this?”

Yahoo says that users can opt-out of interest-based advertising by visiting http://info.yahoo.com/privacy/uk/yahoo/

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