Yahoo has announced that it was ‘threatened’ by the US government with a fine of $250,000 a day if it failed to provide a US intelligence agency access to millions of users’ online communications, required by law, under a secret surveillance programme.
According to newly released court documents from 2008, the National Security Agency (NSA) demanded that the search engine firm comply with its PRISM programme to give the agency access to the online activity of millions of internet users, regardless of their nationality – a move Yahoo branded “unconstitutional”.
Nonetheless, after losing a court case challenging the legality of the order, Yahoo adhered to PRISM to avoid an astronomical fee of $7.5m a week – a fine the company likened to blackmail.
The PRISM scheme was first brought to the public’s attention in the Edward Snowden dispatches after the Guardian published a series of articles which the US government last year admitted to censoring in a bid to contain the leak.
The information on Yahoo’s complicity with the NSA remained classified until 2013. The firm announced it will publish the unsealed court documents from the case on the site’s Tumblr feed “as soon as the documents are ready”.
Ron Bell, Yahoo’s general counsel, said: “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 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.”
Bell added: “Users come first at Yahoo. 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.”
The documents were released following the success of a Yahoo lawsuit against the NSA, filed last September.
This is not the first time a US intelligence agency has been accused of bullying a tech company for questionable access to user correspondence.
Last year, Ladar Levison, founder of secure email service Lavabit, closed the site under pressure from the FBI which demanded he provide the encryption keys to his service. He believed to do so would make him “complicit in crimes against the American people”.
Despite numerous US gagging orders, Levison last year issued a warning to the public telling them to assume their electronic communications are being monitored by US government agencies.
Earlier this year it emerged that Edward Snowden was one of Lavabit’s 400,000 users during a court case in which Levison was found guilty of contempt of court for failing to provide the email encryption key to his site.