Earlier this year, we heard claims that several major tech companies participated in NSA spying efforts. Those allegations damaged customer confidence because more and more people are worried that the government is secretly looking at their communications. But, recently released court documents have vindicated some of the companies involved.
Court documents first came out in 2009 that revealed that some tech companies had helped the NSA track communications. But, there were so many redactions in the documents that it was hard to tell who was behind it. Then, in June last year, The New York Times reported that Yahoo was involved. Now, we know the case had to do with an NSA program called PRISM that allowed the NSA to tap directly into the servers of several major tech companies.
PRISM was first revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden last year, prompting intense backlash and a wrenching national debate over allegations of overreach in government surveillance.
The program tracks communications with "foreign targets" that run through U.S. servers. The allegations that major companies like Yahoo, Google, Apple and Facebook participated in the tracking have hurt their reputation with users in the U.S. and overseas.
It also made clear that while this was intended to target people outside the United States, there inevitably would be “incidental collection” of the communications of Americans. The government promised “stringent minimization procedures to protect the privacy interests of United States persons.”
But, until now, we didn't know much about how the government got these businesses to participate.
Yahoo and others
Newly unsealed court documents now show that Yahoo tried really hard to stay out of the NSA's program in 2008. The government even threatened to fine the company $250,000 a day if it didn't comply! Yahoo challenged the legality of the government's demands, but lost.
The ruling 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.
This is good and bad news. On the one hand, some of my trust in the biggest tech companies in the country has been restored. I'm happy to hear that Yahoo and some of the others didn't just give up user communication data without a fight.
But, this is also really scary because it shows the lengths the NSA will go to in order to get the information it wants. Want to make phone calls that even the NSA can't track? Then, you need this awesome app.