Yahoo! set to snoop on users Customers can't 'opt out' of this feature

07 July 2011

Yahoo! Mail Beta screenshot

The world’s biggest email provider has updated its terms and conditions to allow it to read and analyse its customers’ emails and messaging content, Which? Computing has learned.

Yahoo! said by agreeing to its Additional Terms of Service (ATOS), customers are also giving it their express permission to scan and analyse the content of any electronic correspondence sent to their accounts.

An extract from Section c. of Yahoo! Mail’s ATOS 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).

‘This includes Mail and Messenger content already stored in your account. Unless expressly stated otherwise, Yahoo! Mail customers will not be allowed to opt out of this feature.’

The responsibility for telling non Yahoo! customers that their emails and messaging content are being read is placed on the user. ‘If you consent to this ATOS and communicate with non-Yahoo! users using the Services, you are responsible for notifying those users about this feature,’ Yahoo! said.

Daniel Hamilton, director of Big Brother Watch, said: ‘It's extremely disappointing that Yahoo! has opted to intrude on the privacy of their users in this way. These changes hand the company the power to snoop on and analyse vast amounts of personal data.

'Web users have a right not to see their personal communications trawled through in order to boost Yahoo!’s advertising revenue. Yahoo! should abandon these changes before the crucial bond of trust between it and its users is damaged beyond repair.’

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Yahoo! responds

Yahoo! says it is scanning and analysing this content in order to ‘provide personally relevant product features and content, to match and serve targeted advertising'. And also to provide spam and malware detection and abuse protection to its customers.

'Yahoo! has made a number of changes to its new Yahoo! Mail beta service, designed to provide an improved service to customers,' a spokesperson said.

'As part of Yahoo! Mail Beta, we will provide personally relevant product features, content, advertising, spam and malware detection by analysing (via machine scanning) inbound and outbound emails. Some of these features and advertising will be based on our understanding of the content and meaning of users’ emails.'

For advice on how to protect your identity online, take a look at one of Which?'s free guides 

The spokesperson explained that before using Yahoo! Mail Beta, users would receive a pop-up notice of the new terms of service and privacy policy. 

Anyone that chooses to accept the new terms is allowing Yahoo!’s computer systems to identify words, links, people and subjects from their email so that it could deliver 'exciting new product features like in-line photo and video viewing or commenting on your favourite social networks, as well as protecting you from spam – Yahoo! scanning technology helps stop around 130 billion spam emails each month. 

He added: 'In time, we will also serve relevant ads. It’s worth adding that machine scanning of mail is already used by our major competitors.'

Which? says

Georgina Nelson, a senior Which? in-house lawyer, said: 'The obligation to notify those who email you that their message will be scanned is nonsensical and unrealistic. When exactly are you supposed to do this?

'This is another example of creeping behavioural advertising which, we believe, is a gross violation of internet users' privacy. Most consumers would be horrified to learn that their e-mail can be read in order to open the door to targeted advertisers.'

'Our advice to anyone who has a Yahoo! email and messaging account and who objects is to this is to switch to a different email provider.'

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