NSA Threatened Yahoo With Daily $250K Fines for Not Forking Over Metadata

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Today, court documents were released by Yahoo (via a Tumblr post, of course) showing exactly how far the federal government is willing to go to obtain digital information about its citizens. In 2008, Yahoo was threatened with a $250,000 a day fine if they didn't fork over their users' metadata. Rather than going for the content of the emails, The Washington Post notes the feds were aiming for the data "which detailed who users exchange emails with and when."

Yahoo fought a diligent legal battle, as they had no interest in turning user data over the feds, but they eventually lost. The NSA then forced their hand to join Prism, the secret Internet surveillance program exposed by Edward Snowden. Yahoo had argued that the government's request for this kind of data was unconstitutional, offering this explanation:

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

Our challenge, and a later appeal in the case, did not succeed. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) upheld the predecessor to Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act. The Court ordered us to give the U.S. Government the user data it sought in the matter."

This case was handled in a "secret" court, as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court allows both for closed hearings and closed records. Yahoo has spent several years fighting for the records to be declassified, which General Counsel Ron Bell notes is "extremely rare," and were finally successful. Bell hopes to have the Tumblr post updated with over 1,500 pages from the legal battle soon, saying this development was "an important win for transparency, and hope that these records help promote informed discussion about the relationship between privacy, due process, and intelligence gathering."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.