Tech companies may have all spoken out about their non-participation in the US government-sanctioned PRISM surveillance programme, but it seems they are more than comfortable letting law enforcement access user data based on court orders. That is despite the fact that there exists a challenge mechanism for companies when faced against such court orders.
No challenges from companies (Image credit: Getty Images)
The revelation confirmed what many suspected about how comfortable technology companies are with divulging sometimes sensitive user data. Reggie Walton, the judge who presides over the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court addressed the United States Senate in a letter. The letter was in response to questions posed to him by Senators Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy about the court's functions. See the full letter here.
Walton explained that with the exception of one challenge, the FISA court never hears from companies about the orders. “To date, no electronic communication service provider has opted to challenge a directive pursuant to Section 702,” Walton wrote. Under US law, recipients of the court-issued orders have more than one opportunity to challenge the directives, either directly or by refusing to comply with them. The judge said that under both circumstances, the companies would have to appear before the court and explain their stance. The only one instance of this happening was when Yahoo unsuccessfully challenged a FISA order to release information under the Protect America Act. That was six years ago, and since then no other company has challenged the ruling till this summer.
Google and Microsoft filed a challenger after NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden's leaks put the spotlight on their involvement with PRISM. Ironically, the challenge from the companies is to seek permission to release information about past FISA orders. The court’s decision on this matter is still pending.
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