Despite continuing financial difficulties and an ever decreasing user base, Yahoo made some online history this week revealing what most people up on their technology news already knew; that it had received National Security Letters (NSLs) from the FBI.


While Yahoo’s revelation probably doesn’t come as any surprise, and nor does it sound like big news, it is important.

By choosing to release the contents of the NSL letters, Yahoo have become the first US company to positively confirm and admit that it has received such correspondence from a US Government agency.

What is surprising about the release of the letters is that fact that Yahoo didn’t have to battle their way through the US legal system to do so.

But How?

It’s all due to new legislation called known as the USA Freedom Act. In basic terms, the FBI now has to regularly come to a conclusion as to when NSL gag orders are no longer relevant or necessary except in exceptional cases that represent a clear and present danger to US national interests.

So can I see these letters?

Kind of…

Yahoo have published three NSLs they received between 2013 and 2015. Unfortunately, they’re heavily redacted, which basically means someone has taken a black marker to certain parts of the text.

What you can see from the released letters however is the type of information the FBI requested that Yahoo provide, such as names, addresses, and service dates. The omission of any request for the actual content within emails should not fill conspiracy theorists with any sense of relief however, because it’s still unknown if other as yet unrevealed NSLs have or did.

So while the three released redacted letters are a positive step on the road to transparency it doesn’t however reveal how many letters Yahoo itself has revealed. Companies are still only allowed to list the number of NSLs they have received in lots of 500.

Yahoo stated as part of their press release:

“Yahoo has always maintained a strong commitment to protecting our users’ safety, security and privacy. The release of these documents and information regarding NSLs today is consistent with our commitment to sharing as much information as we legally can regarding government data requests. We believe there is value in making these documents available to the public to promote an informed discussion about the legal authorities available to law enforcement. They also demonstrate the importance of hard-fought reforms to surveillance law achieved with passage of the USA Freedom Act.”