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Back in 2008, we had no inkling about a massive spy program such as PRISM. But Yahoo did, because the government asked them to participate. When Yahoo said it was unconstitutional, the government threatened them with hefty fines. Facing bankruptcy, Yahoo eventually caved. The company was PRISM’s first victim though it was not the first to sign on.
PRISM’s First Victim
PRISM is the 2007 spy program of the NSA that has played a huge role in the agency’s mass surveillance initiatives. We know it ran on data collected from 9 big Internet companies. But who caved first? Unsealed court documents seem to indicate that Microsoft did. But Yahoo was PRISM’s first victim, pressured to the point of bankruptcy by the government’s demands. The company was first approached by the NSA in 2008. Yahoo became PRISM’s first victim after being threatened with daily fines of $250,000 if they did not comply. Like other tech and Internet companies, Yahoo was extorted by the government to join the spy program.
The documents detail how Yahoo was compelled to pass user communications to the NSA. The company knew that it was an unconstitutional request, but their hands were tied. In the face of these hefty fines, Yahoo would have gone under if it did not agree to be PRISM’s first victim. Of course, the company could have chosen to close its doors to protect its users, like Lavabit did. This private email service refused to crumble under the pressures of the NSA. They stood by their promise to keep their users’ data private. In Yahoos case, adding insult to injury, they not only complied with the NSA’s demands, but lied to the public about their involvement.
But let’s not start the Yahoo bashing just yet. The court documents also reveal that when Yahoo took the NSA to court, they lost. The company did try to resist the agency’s demands, but ended up having to comply. Unable to pay the $250,000 per day fine, they started passing emails and other data over to the NSA. But they appealed, and now we have the unredacted proof. The 1500-page file shows that Yahoo took pains to prevent becoming PRISM’s first victim. But their final loss paved the way for PRISM’s success. Several other tech companies got sucked in to PRISM because of the court ruling. The FISA court backed PRISM, and this persuaded other companies that PRISM was perfectly fine. Apple, AOL, Google, Facebook, and more signed on, and the rest is surveillance history.
When Snowden blew the top of the PRISM program, all the companies involved in handing over user data were put on the spot. They vehemently denied being complicit in the program. We can give Yahoo some credit now in light of the unsealed court documents. They were not allowed to tell the world that they tried to fight. But other companies in contrast did not put up much of a fight.