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How NSA Coerced Yahoo Into Revealing User Data

Sunday, December 28th, 2014

Silicon Valley giants like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, Apple and AOL received a lot of flak last year when it was revealed that they shared personal data and private communications of millions of users with the NSA. The data was of course shared under the PRISM program; the infamous surveillance program designed to snoop upon the online activities and communications of Americans and the details of which were leaked by the whistleblower Edward Snowden. While it was previously thought that the tech companies willingly shared data with the intelligence agency, new details now reveal that at least one company (Yahoo) refused to do so initially and was threatened with dire consequences that coerced it to submission.

According to court documents made public recently, the U.S. government threatened Yahoo with massive fines (starting from $250,000 per day) if it did not share emails and other personal details of its users with the NSA. What’s more, the fine was set to double each week until Yahoo starts co-operating with the intelligence agency ($250,000/day in the first week; $500,000/day in the second week; $1,000,000/day in the third week and so on). The huge financial penalty was clearly meant to break Yahoo’s financial backbone since the fines would have exceeded the company’s cash reserves within the first few weeks.

Yahoo clearly believed that the request to share data was unconstitutional so it filed a case against the government. However, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review ruled against the company and as a result, Yahoo became one of the first tech giants to share data with the government under the PRISM program. The ruling against Yahoo was instrumental in bringing Google, Apple, AOL and Facebook on board since the government was able to prove that the demand to access private communications of Americans has been approved by a court of law. In hindsight, the ruling shaped the PRISM program itself since the NSA was able to make unprecedented data demands and the tech companies had no other option but to comply with the requests.

Since the revelation of the PRISM program caused massive public outcry in 2013, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court declassified the court documents related to the Yahoo case in an effort to reveal the legal reasoning behind NSA’s surveillance programs. Yahoo welcomed the decision and said that the documents clearly show that the company was not a willing partner in the government’s surveillance efforts. It may be recalled that the revelations caused significant damage to the reputations of Yahoo and other tech companies not only at home but also throughout the world.

The above episode clearly shows that the NSA (and the US government) would stop at nothing to extract data from US based corporations. The declassified documents reveal that the NSA can order companies to hand over emails of US individuals without having to create search warrants for each and every request. While this may appear like a constitutional violation (as thought by Yahoo), the current laws clearly favor the NSA and the U.S. government.

December 28, 2014

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