When faced with an order from the US government to hand over records under a controversial surveillance law, an American tech company fought back in court, according to a previously secret 2014 ruling contained in records that was obtained through lawsuits from the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation.
The company challenged the order, made under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and argued its case in front of a secret court. The judge’s ruling is heavily redacted, and the exact nature of the request is unknown, as is the company that brought the challenge. A line in the ruling suggests some “expansion” of government spying powers was being debated, although an expansion into what realm is also unclear.
What can be gleaned is that the judge ultimately sided with the government, and ordered the company to hand over the data. But as the ACLU writes, the ruling reveals the first known attempt by a company to challenge the process. For years, civil rights advocates have argued that broad, secretive powers granted to the government under Section 702 allow it to indiscriminately sweep up electronic communications with little accountability.
It’s difficult to ascertain which company may have posed the challenge. The order could have been sent to any of the many tech titans with valuable customer data, such as Google and Facebook.
In 2007, Yahoo challenged a surveillance order made under an earlier version of FISA, an attempt that was also shot down. In 2014, documents revealed how the US government had threatened the company with hefty fines if it did not comply. “We refused to comply with what we viewed as unconstitutional and overbroad surveillance and challenged the U.S. Government’s authority,” Yahoo said when the documents were released.
In a statement yesterday, the ACLU said “the anonymous tech company that brought this challenge should be commended for defending its users’ privacy, and other companies must do the same by fighting for critical reforms to Section 702 in the courts and in Congress.”
Congress is currently debating whether to reauthorize Section 702, as its provisions are set to expire at the end of the year.