Yahoo responded to a report that it scanned incoming email to hundreds of millions of accounts for the U.S government. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP)
Media Columnist

Not long after Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive government surveillance of the American public, Yahoo was one of the eight tech giants that called for strong reforms that would protect their customers.

And back in 2007, Yahoo went to court to challenge a government surveillance program in order to protect its users’ privacy.

Well, that was then.

Now, in a move that has outraged privacy advocates, Yahoo reportedly has helped take government intrusion to a new level. Without apparent protest, according to news reports, it built a mechanism that allowed the National Security Agency and the FBI to scan all of its users’ incoming emails for specific characters or words.

That’s hundreds of millions of emails.

Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo, at a forum in 2015. She has led the tech company since 2012. (Elijah Nouvelage/Reuters)

“This is Big Brother on steroids and must be stopped,” said Rep. Ted Lieu, a California Democrat sometimes described as a “privacy pit bull.” He tweeted that it was an “outrageous abuse of federal government power.”

The Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Andrew Crocker and Mark Rumold wrote that while mass surveillance is unfortunately familiar, what Yahoo did “represents some deeply troubling new twists.”

The ready compliance from Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer prompted at least two executives to leave, according to Reuters, which broke the story Tuesday night.

The company’s first public response suggested an unquestioning, good-soldier mentality: “Yahoo is a law-abiding company and complies with the laws of the United States.” Later, Yahoo called the Reuters article misleading, saying that the company “narrowly interprets” government requests for information to minimize its customers’ exposure and that “the mail scanning described in the article does not exist on our systems.”

A classic non-denial denial. And one that is typical of the new Yahoo under Mayer, according to Chris Soghoian, principal technologist with the American Civil Liberties Union.

Accused of eating the cookies, “Yahoo, with crumbs and smears of chocolate around its mouth, asks, ‘What cookies?’ ” he said.

Not every tech company has been so docile. Apple, for example, pushed back hard against a government demand to build a “back door” to get at information in the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino attackers last year. And Google said Wednesday that it would have told the government to pound salt had this new demand come its way — which it hasn’t.

Robert Litt, top lawyer for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, suggested in a Yale Law Journal article in April how national security officials might see it. Writing about a hypothetical case, he asked, “If the government electronically scans electronic communications, even the content of those communications, to identify those that it is lawfully entitled to collect, and no one ever sees a non-responsive communication, or even knows that it exists, where is the actual harm?”

Stewart Baker, former assistant secretary for policy in the Department of Homeland Security, told me Wednesday that what Yahoo agreed to do strikes him as incremental and unobjectionable: “Nobody should be surprised by it.”

“Frankly,” he added, “I think the privacy groups are trying to make a scandal out of this because they would prefer companies to be hostile to something that is in our national interest.”

To be sure, we live in dangerous times — and many Americans want their government to protect them by whatever means necessary, no matter the cost to personal privacy. What’s more, in the Internet age, expectations of privacy have almost disappeared — advertisers know enough to send you diaper coupons before your best friend knows you’re pregnant.

But the idea that personal email is being secretly scanned for specifics by the government, with ready help from the company you trusted with your account, seems like a pretty big deal even if we’ve all become accustomed to Big Brother’s watchful gaze.

“Once you’ve crossed this bridge, what’s the limiting principle?” asked Jameel Jaffer, director of the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. He called it “troubling that the government has significantly expanded a surveillance program that was already too broad.”

He is concerned, too, about First Amendment implications: “the chilling effect on the willingness to communicate through these channels.”

At the very least, transparency and public discussion ought to be part of this whole equation — especially since laws making such surveillance legal (if indeed it is, in this case) are set to expire next year.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, I seem to recall lavish promises of public debate and transparency. Instead, Americans have to find out the truth, once again, via inside sources talking to journalists — followed by a disingenuous corporate denial and government silence.

In the succinct words of the Twitter put-down: “Delete your account.”

For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.