Secret-court ruling in 2008 put tech firms in legal data bind
SAN FRANCISCO - In a secret court in Washington, Yahoo’s top lawyers made their case. The government had sought help in spying on certain foreign users, without a warrant, and Yahoo had refused, saying the broad requests were unconstitutional.
The judges disagreed. That left Yahoo with two choices: Hand over the data or break the law.
So Yahoo became part of the National Security Agency’s secret Internet surveillance program, Prism, according to leaked NSA documents, as did seven other Internet companies.
Like almost all the actions of the secret court, which operates under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the details of the disagreement with Yahoo were never made public beyond a heavily redacted court order, one of the few public documents to emerge from the court. The name of the company had not been revealed until now. Yahoo’s involvement was confirmed by two people with knowledge of the proceedings. Yahoo declined to comment.
But the decision has had lasting repercussions for the dozens of companies that store troves of their users’ personal information and receive these national security requests - it puts them on notice that they need not even try to test their legality. And despite the murky details, the case offers a glimpse of the push and pull among tech companies and the intelligence and law enforcement agencies that try to tap into the reams of personal data stored on their servers.
It also highlights a paradox of Silicon Valley: While tech companies eagerly vacuum up user data to track their users and sell ever more targeted ads, many also have a libertarian streak and resist sharing that data with the government.
“Even though they have an awful reputation on consumer privacy issues, when it comes to government privacy, they generally tend to put their users first,” said Christopher Soghoian, a senior policy analyst studying technological surveillance at the American Civil Liberties Union. “There’s this libertarian, pro-civil liberties vein that runs through the tech companies.”
Lawyers who handle national security requests for tech companies say they rarely fight in court but frequently push back privately by negotiating with the government, even if they ultimately have to comply. In addition to Yahoo, which fought disclosures under FISA, others, including Google, Twitter, smaller communications providers and a group of librarians, have fought in court elements of National Security Letters, which the FBI uses to secretly collect information about Americans. Last year, the government issued more than 1,850 FISA requests and 15,000 National Security Letters.
“The tech companies try to pick their battles,” said Stephen I. Vladeck, a law professor at American University who has challenged government counterterrorism surveillance. “Behind the scenes, different tech companies show different degrees of cooperativeness or pugnaciousness.”