The US government threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 a day if it refused to hand over user data to the National Security Agency, according to court documents unsealed Thursday.
In a blogpost, the company said the 1,500 pages of once-secret documents shine further light on Yahoo’s previously disclosed clash with the NSA over access to its users’ data.
The papers outline Yahoo’s secret and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle to resist the government’s demands for the tech firm to cooperate with the NSA’s controversial Prism surveillance program, revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden last year.
“The released documents underscore how we had to fight every step of the way to challenge the US government’s surveillance efforts,” said company general counsel Ron Bell in a Tumblr post.
The US government amended a key law to demand user information from online services in 2007. When Yahoo was asked to hand over user data the company objected arguing the request was “unconstitutional and overbroad”.
Yahoo took its case to the foreign intelligence surveillance court, also known as the Fisa court, which oversees requests for surveillance orders in national security investigations. The secretive Fisa court provides the legal authorities that underpin the US government’s controversial surveillance programs. Yahoo lost its case, and an appeal.
Federal judge William Bryson, presiding judge of the foreign intelligence surveillance court of review, which reviews denials of applications for electronic surveillance warrants, unsealed the documents on Thursday.
Disclosures in the Guardian and the Washington Post about the Prism program, which was discontinued in 2011, prompted an international backlash over allegations of overreach in government surveillance and against the tech companies which cooperated with it.
“Despite the declassification and release, portions of the documents remain sealed and classified to this day, unknown even to our team. The released documents underscore how we had to fight every step of the way to challenge the US government’s surveillance efforts. At one point, the US government threatened the imposition of $250,000 in fines per day if we refused to comply,” wrote Bell.
“Our fight continues. We are still pushing for the FISC [Fisa court] to release materials from the 2007-2008 case in the lower court. 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 [court of review] matter is resolved, we will work hard to make the materials from the FISC case public, as well.”
Almost all the major US tech firms including AOL, Apple, Google and Microsoft were listed by the NSA as participants in the program, which was run in conjunction with the NSA’s British equivalent, GCHQ.
Begun under the Bush administration the program collected information from the major tech companies under Section 702 of the Fisa Amendments Act. The NSA’s slides obtained by Snowden contained a briefing presentation which said Prism granted access to records such as emails, chat conversations, voice calls, documents and more.
Patrick Toomey, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project, said he had not yet reviewed all the documents but that it appeared Yahoo “had challenged the warrantless wiretapping program more than any other of its competitors”.