Security Advisor

Yahoo Threatened with Daily Fines after Challenging Surveillance Requests

The tech company said it was fined $250,000 per day for not handing over requested user data.

According to Yahoo, the company was threatened by the U.S. government to pay $250,000 per day for not assisting the NSA and other government bodies in their online surveillance efforts.

The news was released yesterday by Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell in a company blog post announcing the release of more than 1,500 documents from a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) challenge by the company that will be available soon, according to a court order released earlier in the day.

"In 2007, the U.S. Government amended a key law to demand user information from online services," wrote Bell. "We refused to comply with what we viewed as unconstitutional and overbroad surveillance and challenged the U.S. Government's authority."

Yahoo ended up losing the challenge and the follow-up appeal, and was ordered to hand over the requested data. However, seeking some transparency in the secretive nature of FISC requests, Yahoo fought for and ultimately won the right to declassify the 1,500 pages of documents concerning the incident.

An earlier, heavily redacted version of the documents were released in 2009, but due to the amount of information withheld, the documents shed little light on the most basic information, including which company was involved and how the court came to its decision. Yahoo continued to push for better disclosure on the matter due to the FISC review of the matter setting an integral legal precedent for the NSA's controversial PRISM surveillance program.

Bell said one of the key takeaways from the coming documents is how the government put pressure on the tech company to comply with the threat of monetary fines. "The released documents underscore how we had to fight every step of the way to challenge the U.S. Government's surveillance efforts," wrote Bell. "At one point, the U.S. Government threatened the imposition of $250,000 in fines per day if we refused to comply."

The fines imposed on the company in 2008 directly correlates with a Snowden-leaked NSA slide from earlier in the year showing Yahoo's participation in government surveillance programs beginning in the same year.

The court battle disclosure between Yahoo and the U.S. government shares many similarities to Microsoft's recent legal struggle to block a search warrant for private user information stored on an overseas Microsoft datacenter. While Microsoft challenged to block the order under privacy rights connected to the Fourth Amendment, a U.S. District Court uphold the warrant and ordered Microsoft to hand over the requested data on July 31.

Just this week Microsoft was held in contempt of the court for not complying with the order -- a move that will allow for the case to be appealed.

With the impending release of the Yahoo court documents and the continued legal challenges by Microsoft and Yahoo, large tech firms are continuing their struggle to gain back the trust of users in the wake of the PRISM reveals.

"Users come first at Yahoo," wrote Bell. "We treat public safety with the utmost seriousness, but we are also committed to protecting users' data. We will continue to contest requests and laws that we consider unlawful, unclear, or overbroad."

About the Author

Chris Paoli is the site producer for Redmondmag.com and MCPmag.com.

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