Yahoo compelled to release data

WASHINGTON (TIP): The Washington Post carried a story by Craig Timberg in its September 11 edition which disclosed the U.S. government threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 a day in 2008 if it failed to comply with a broad demand to hand over user data that the company believed was unconstitutional, according to court documents unsealed Thursday, September 11, that illuminate how federal officials forced American tech companies to participate in the NSA’s controversial PRISM program.

The documents, roughly 1,500 pages worth, outline a secret and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle by Yahoo to resist the government’s demands. The company’s loss required Yahoo to become one of the first companies to begin providing information to PRISM, a program that gave the National Security Agency extensive access to records of online communications by users of Yahoo and other U.S.-based technology firms.

“The released documents underscore how we had to fight every step of the way to challenge the U.S. Government’s surveillance efforts,” said company General Counsel Ron Bell in a Tumblr post published Thursday afternoon. The program, which was discontinued in 2011, was first revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last year, prompting intense backlash and a wrenching national debate over allegations of overreach in government surveillance.

Federal Judge William C. Bryson, presiding judge of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review, ordered the documents from the legal battle unsealed on Thursday as part of a broad effort by the court system to declassify the arguments that formed the legal foundation for PRISM. The original order to Yahoo came in 2007 and set off alarms at the company because of the sweep of its requests and its side-stepping of the traditional requirement that each target be subject to court review before surveillance could begin.

The order, Yahoo officials said, required only that the target be outside of the United States at the time, even if the person was a U.S. citizen. The company challenged the order on constitutional grounds but lost repeatedly, both at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and an appeals court, the Foreign Intelligence Court of Review. The government requested and obtained permission to share the ruling with other companies as it gradually pressured most of the major players in the American tech industry – including Google, Apple and Facebook – to comply with the data demands.

The requests concerned not the content of emails but what it called “metadata,” which detailed who users exchange e-mails with and when. It is not known if e-mail collection continues in some other form. The ACLU, which had supported Yahoo’s legal fight in 2008, applauded Thursday’s move to release the documents but said it was long overdue. “The public can’t understand what a law means if it doesn’t know how the courts are interpreting that law,” said Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s national Security Project.

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