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Yahoo Faced Heavy Fines for Resisting Government Push for Data Surveillance

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On Thursday the Federal Court that rejected the 2008 challenge by Yahoo to protect user privacy ordered that court documents be released. Yahoo revealed this information in a blog post that said at one point the US government threatened fines of $250,000 per day for non-compliance.

“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 US government’s surveillance efforts,” Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell said. “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.”

Yahoo’s challenge to the law took place shortly after the National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden exposed government data that detailed the Prism program, which the NSA launched in 2007 to mine data as part of mass electronic surveillance.

Some companies have chosen to reveal data requests in the post-Snowden climate by issuing transparency reports. Google, CloudFlare, ATT, Leaseweb and Microsoft are among the many tech companies that release such information on a yearly or quarterly basis.

Cloud and hosting companies face greater challenges after the Snowden revelations as to what customers expect and such requests are handled. A recent report by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) showed companies attempting to improve policies for data requests from the government.

The EFF examined company transparency reports to determine how companies handle requests for customer data. Nine of the companies in the report received the highest possible score of six stars, and six more received five out of six and were not eligible for the sixth as they did not have to go to court on behalf of users. Twenty of the 26 companies it surveyed publish transparency reports.

Also on Thursday, Dropbox released it’s most recent transparency report. During the first half of 2014 it received 268 requests from law enforcement agencies and 0-249 national security requests.

“While that number is small compared to our 300 million users, we treat all the requests we receive seriously and scrutinize them to make sure they satisfy legal requirements before complying,” Dropbox legal counsel Bart Volkmer said in a blog post. “We also push back in cases where agencies are seeking too much information or haven’t followed the proper procedures.”

Dropbox said that law enforcement agencies often ask for data requests to be kept secret even when there is no legal basis. About 80 percent of these requests had a clause of this type.

Yahoo opposed sharing customer data on the basis that the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act went against citizens Fourth Amendment rights. The statute enacted under the Bush administration allowed the government to use surveillance techniques without a warrant against foreigners. Companies complying with the statute by sharing data can’t acknowledge the requests or talk about them.

“International terrorists, and (redacted) in particular, use Yahoo to communicate over the Internet,” the director of national intelligence at the time, Mike McConnell, said in a court document supporting the government’s position. “Any further delay in Yahoo’s compliance could cause great harm to the United States, as vital foreign intelligence information contained in communications to which only Yahoo has access, will go uncollected.”

A current congressional bill seeks to reign in some of the currently legal data collection by the government. The USA Freedom Act of 2014 seeks to “reform the authorities of the Federal Government to require the production of certain business records, conduct electronic surveillance, use pen registers and trap and trace devices, and use other forms of information gathering for foreign intelligence, counterterrorism, and criminal purposes, and for other purposes.”

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