With financial threats like these, Yahoo didn’t seem to have much of an option. The U.S. government set out to fine the search engine company $250,000 a day in 2008 if it did not cooperate with requests to hand over user communications. The Washington Post first broke the story.
Although Yahoo viewed the demands as unconstitutional, the Post obtained documents that were unsealed on Thursday showing how federal officials “forced” American technology companies to participate in the National Security Agency’s (NSA) controversial PRISM program.
PRISM is a secret electronic surveillance data-mining program. The NSA launched PRISM in 2007 and at some point allied with Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) to collect stored web communications. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and others were involved and started putting out transparency reports outlining the data requests governments were making in response.
“The ruling by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review became a key moment in the development of PRISM, helping government officials to convince other Silicon Valley companies that unprecedented data demands had been tested in the courts and found constitutionally sound,” the Post reported. The FISC is a secret court that oversees requests by the U.S. government for surveillance orders and other types of legal process in national security investigations.
Yahoo Had No Choice
We caught up with Greg Sterling, Vice President of the Local Search Association, to get his thoughts on the issues surrounding Yahoo. He told us Yahoo didn’t have many options in 2008 after it challenged the request with the FISC and lost.
“This illustrates the leverage that the U.S. has over domestic Internet companies and how, despite Yahoo's efforts to protect its users, it was forced to comply,” Sterling said. “Ultimately, in this situation, Yahoo had no choice but to hand over the information.”
Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell announced on Thursday that the company was releasing over 1,500 once-secret papers from its 2007-2008 challenge to the expansion of U.S. surveillance laws. Bell called it an important win for transparency and said he hopes the records help promote informed discussion about the relationship between privacy, due process, and intelligence gathering.
“Our fight continues. We are still pushing for the FISC to release materials from the 2007-2008 case in the lower court,” Bell said. “The FISC indicated previously that it was waiting on the FISC-R ruling in relation to the 2008 appeal before moving forward. Now that the FISC-R matter is resolved, we will work hard to make the materials from the FISC case public, as well.”
White House Studies the Issue
Last December, the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies issued a report with 46 recommendations that aim to balance national security, foreign policy, privacy and civil liberties.
Dubbed Liberty and Security in a Changing World, the recommendations in the report emphasize risk management and the need to consider a wide range of potential consequences, including both costs and benefits, in discussing potential reforms.
“The report emphasizes throughout that the central task is one of managing a wide assortment of risks,” according to the White House blog. “The review group is hopeful that the recommendations made here might prove helpful in striking the right balance. Free nations must protect themselves, and nations that protect themselves must remain free.”
Image credit: NSA/iStock/Artist's Concept.