U.S. Government Threatened to Fine Yahoo $250,000/Day

Originally published on September 14, 2014, at NationofChange.org

Unsealed court documents reveal the U.S. government threatened Yahoo Inc. with $250,000 daily fines for refusing to hand over customer data to intelligence agencies in 2008. After losing in court, Yahoo and many major U.S. telecommunications corporations became complicit in the mass surveillance programs revealed by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Taking desperate measures to ensure its secrecy, the government has rewritten the law to allow infringements upon the Fourth Amendment.

Instead of just requesting metadata, the Protect America Act of 2007 demanded telecom companies also provide full emails without a warrant. Although the law intended to target people outside of the U.S., the government admitted communications between Americans would likely be collected as well. After the Protect America Act lapsed, the FISA Amendments Act of 2008 swiftly replaced it authorizing continued mass surveillance.

Contesting the order to provide the U.S. government with user data without a warrant, Yahoo waged a legal battle at the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC). Appointed by the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice, FISC members hold secret sessions and often only hear from Justice Department and intelligence agency lawyers. Arguing that the Protect America Act was in violation of the Fourth Amendment, Yahoo lost the case and was ordered to pay $250,000 for each day they refused to turn over customer data. The fine would have doubled for each successive week.

Yahoo appealed the decision but was forced to continue providing user data to the government throughout the appeals process. As Yahoo lost the case and the appeal, many major U.S. tech companies like AOL, Apple, Facebook, and Google fell in line complying with surveillance programs. According to NSA documents, AT&T and Microsoft began collaborating with the government prior to Yahoo’s defeat.

Last summer Edward Snowden revealed mass surveillance programs such as PRISM targeting U.S. citizens. Because Snowden had reportedly been a Lavabit user before escaping to Hong Kong, the U.S. government ordered Lavabit owner Ladar Levison to grant them access to his users’ emails. Instead of complying, Levison reluctantly decided to shut down the email service provider that he had spent nearly ten years creating.

Before seeking asylum in Russia, Edward Snowden met journalists Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras at a hotel room in Hong Kong. Snowden granted them an interview and gave the reporters classified materials belonging to the NSA. In response, the British government detained Greenwald’s partner at Heathrow Airport on charges of being a possible terrorist and sent GCHQ agents to smash the hard drives in the basement of The Guardian.

Concerned about warrantless wiretapping and violating the Fourth Amendment, William Binney resigned from the NSA on October 31, 2001. After leaving the agency, Binney, Ed Loomis, and J. Kirk Wiebe filed a Defense Department Inspector General report concerning the mass surveillance program known as Trailblazer. Former NSA senior executive Thomas Drake supplied much of the information in that report.

Since former NSA Director Michael Hayden approved the Trailblazer Project in 2000, a myriad of surveillance programs have spewed forth monitoring American citizens: Stellar Wind, PRISM, BLARNEY, FAIRVIEW, OAKSTAR, MARINA, Pinwale, Trafficthief, STORMBREW, BOUNDLESSINFORMANT, and XKeyscore. Prior to the Trailblazer Project, the U.S. government participated in the Echelon spy network. According to investigative journalist James Bamford, U.S. telecom providers have secretly been supplying the government with our private communications since the 1930s.

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