Blog Post

Yahoo will publish documents from secret spy court PRISM case, says US threatened $250K fines

It’s been more than a year since former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blew the lid off the secret PRISM program, under which the U.S. government forced big tech companies to take part in an automated data collection program. Now, the public is about to get a closer look at the legal reasons that justified the program in the first place.

On Thursday, Yahoo announced it will publish 1,500 pages of secret papers from 2007 and 2008 proceedings before America’s secret spy court. Those proceedings have been entirely shrouded in secrecy and, until last year, Yahoo was not even allowed to mention their existence.

The Yahoo news follows up a minor victory for civil libertarians in July of 2013 when the spy court, known as the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, said parts of the 2008 decision could be published once it was declassified.

In a blog post, Yahoo’s head lawyer, Ron Bell, provides some background on the case, including how it lost its first challenge to the government’s demand and a subsequent appeal. Bell also states that the U.S. government threatened fines of $250,000 per day if [company]Yahoo[/company] failed to comply with the surveillance requests.

The reason that the release of the court case information is so important is because the proceedings of the secret spy court, known as the FISC court, have been almost entirely censored until now. While it is not unusual for a court to redact sensitive material related to investigations related to crime or terrorism, it convenes common law principles for the court to refuse to share the reasons for a decision.

In other words, Yahoo lost its challenge to the surveillance demands — but the court would not even say why it had lost, or even permit the company to mention the case in the first place. This initial decision became a precedent and, in turn, likely justified the secret court’s many subsequent decisions.

The FISC court thus “become almost a parallel Supreme Court” with its own “secret body of law” in the words of the New York Times.

Yahoo did not immediately publish the documents, but Bell writes they will become available in coming days.