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US Gov’t Threatened Yahoo with $250k/day Fine for Failure to Participate in NSA PRISM Program

In Archive, DOJ, NSA, NSA Files, Surveillance, USA, Yahoo on September 12, 2014 at 2:17 PM
yahoo-prism-legal

Image via Jason Reed

09/11/2014

The U.S. government threatened to fine Yahoo $250,000 a day in 2008 if it failed to comply with a broad demand to hand over user communications — a request the company believed was unconstitutional — according to court documents (2 files not working on IC site, mirrored here & here) unsealed Thursday. The documents, roughly 1,500 pages worth, outline a secret and ultimately unsuccessful legal battle by Yahoo to resist the government’s demands. The company’s loss required Yahoo to become one of the first to begin providing information to PRISM, a program that gave the NSA extensive access to records of online com­munications by users of Yahoo and other U.S.-based technology firms.

The ruling (PDF/6.8MB) 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. Eventually, most major U.S. tech companies, including Google, Facebook, Apple and AOL, complied. Microsoft had joined earlier, before the ruling, NSA documents have shown. A version (PDF/3.5MB) of the court ruling had been released in 2009 but was so heavily redacted that observers were unable to discern which company was involved, what the stakes were and how the court had wrestled with many of the issues involved.

Yahoo hailed the decision in a Tumblr post Thursday afternoon. “The released documents underscore how we had to fight every step of the way to challenge the U.S. Government’s surveillance efforts. At one point, the U.S. Government threatened the imposition of $250,000 in fines per day if we refused to comply.” Ron Bell, the company’s general counsel, wrote in the post. Faced with the fine, Yahoo began complying with the legal order on May 12th, 2008, as it continued with the appeal, which it lost several months later.

May 9th, 2008 document shows the U.S. threatened Yahoo with a fine of $250,000 a day that would double each week the company failed to turn over data:

usg-yahoo-250k

via Marcy Wheeler/Emptywheel:

The “linking” procedures — is what was redacted in this post I did when the memo was first released. As I noted then, the procedures were what the FISCR used to meet particularity requirements.

The following passage starts on page 23:

The linking procedures — procedures that show that the [redacted] designated for surveillance are linked to persons reasonably believed to be overseas and otherwise appropriate targets — involve the application of “foreign intelligence factors” These factors are delineated in an ex parte appendix filed by the government. They also are described, albeit with greater generality, in the government’s brief. As attested by affidavits  of the Director of the National Security Agency (NSA), the government identifies [redacted] surveillance for national security purposes on information indicating that, for instance, [big redaction] Although the FAA itself does not mandate a showing of particularity, see 50 U.S.C. § 1805(b). This pre-surveillance procedure strikes us as analogous to and in conformity with the particularly showing contemplated by Sealed Case.

I’ll need to look more closely to find this brief — if it was released. But I suspect that this shows more closely how the metadata dragnets and the content collection are linked. They collect the metadata to mine for “proof” of meaningful connection, then use that to unlock the content. That’s not surprising — it’s what I had been speculating since days after Risen first broke this — but it’s important to flesh out. Because, of course, all this not-a-search metadata really is, because it leads directly to the content.

As I noted in my post in 2009, Russ Feingold released a statement with the release of the opinion, basically arguing that Yahoo could have won this if they had had access to the procedures related to the program (Mark Zwillinger made the same point when he testified to PCLOB).

The decision placed the burden of proof on the company to identify problems related to the implementation of the law, information to which the company did not have access.  The courtupheld the constitutionality of the PAA, as applied, without the benefit of an effective adversarial process.  The court concluded that “[t]he record supports the government.  Notwithstanding the parade of horribles trotted out by the petitioner, it has presented no evidence of any actual harm, any egregious risk of error, or any broad potential for abuse in the circumstances of the instant case.”  However, the company did not have access to all relevant information, including problems related to the implementation of the PAA.  Senator Feingold, who has repeatedly raised concerns about the implementation of the PAA and its successor, the FISA Amendments Act (“FAA”), in classified communications with the Director of National Intelligence and the Attorney General, has stated that the court’s analysis would have been fundamentally altered had the company had access to this information and been able to bring it before the court.

There’s no reason to believe the “linking” procedures are what Feingold was referring to. After all, there still are details of the minimization and targeting procedures that raise big constitutional issues. Plus, we know foreign collection has always been a big concern of Feingold’s. But I am wondering whether part of the problem was that their contact chaining was not very good, and therefore they were collecting people who really weren’t linked to the targets in question.

Related Link: Declassified 2008 FISCR Transcript of Yahoo Oral Argument Re: NSA PRISM Participation

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  4. […] US Gov’t Threatened Yahoo with $250k/day Fine for Failure to Participate in NSA PRISM Program / Declassified 2008 FISCR Transcript of Yahoo Oral Argument Re: NSA PRISM Participation […]

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