Yahoo reportedly fought court order before joining PRISM

The Web company was the unidentified petitioner challenging an order to help the U.S. government spy on foreign users, sources tell The New York Times.

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Yahoo reportedly challenged a U.S. government order to help it spy on foreign users before ultimately failing and becoming part of the PRISM, the National Security Agency's controversial surveillance program.

The details of the dispute were never made public beyond a heavily redacted court order (PDF). But sources told The New York Times that Yahoo is the unnamed company that petitioned the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2008 for review of the order over concerns it violated its users' the Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The court responded that the company's concerns were "overblown" and that "incidentally collected communications of non-targeted United States persons do not violate the Fourth Amendment."

The court concluded that the company "presented no evidence of actual harm, any egregious risk of error, or any broad potential for abuse," adding that "where the government has instituted several layers of serviceable safeguards to protect individuals against unwarranted harms and to minimize incidental intrusions, its efforts to protect national security should not be frustrated by the courts."

Initial reports last week in the U.K.-based Guardian and in the Washington Post said U.S. Internet companies allegedly cooperated with an NSA's program called PRISM. Since then, however, the reports have been shown to be incorrect, and the Post and Guardian have backed away from their original claims.

In addition, it turns out that the so-called PRISM program is not the name of a spy program after all: it's the name of an internal NSA software tool that's used to collate data collected through a legal process created by Congress in 2008 and last renewed in December 2012. That "702" process, overseen by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, the Justice Department, and Congress, requires companies to comply with orders for information on non-U.S. citizens in investigations related to "prevention of terrorism, hostile cyberactivities, or nuclear proliferation."

Yahoo denied the allegations last week regarding its participation in the program, calling them "categorically false."

"Yahoo! has not joined any program in which we volunteer to share user data with the U.S. government," Yahoo General Counsel Ron Bell wrote in a Tumblr post Saturday. "We do not voluntarily disclose user information. The only disclosures that occur are in response to specific demands."

CNET has contacted Yahoo for comment about the court order and will update this report when we learn more.