A secret US court overseeing government domestic surveillance activities has sided with Yahoo and ordered US President Barack Obama’s administration to declassify and publish a 2008 court decision justifying PRISM, the data collection program revealed last month by former security contractor Edward Snowden.
The ruling could offer a rare glimpse into how Washington has legally justified its spy agencies’ data collection programs under the US’ Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
Judge Reggie Walton of the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued Monday’s ruling. The government is expected to decide by Aug. 26 which parts of the 2008 opinion may be published, according to a separate court filing by the US Department of Justice.
Controversial US data collection activities are overseen by the court and its appeals body, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review. Both have been shrouded in secrecy since their creation more than three decades ago.
The 2008 ruling stemmed from Yahoo’s challenge of the legality of broad, warrant-less surveillance programs like PRISM.
Last month, after Snowden leaked information about PRISM to the Washington Post and the Guardian newspapers, Yahoo’s lawyers asked the US courts and government to declassify and publish decisions upholding the constitutionality of the program.
Legal experts who follow surveillance cases said the 2008 ruling may not reveal any strikingly novel legal reasoning by the government or the courts, but civil liberties advocates said the significance of the ruling may lie in the court’s decision itself to declassify the previously secret 2008 ruling.
The decision is also a victory for Yahoo, which said in a statement on Tuesday that it was “very pleased” with the ruling.
Other Internet companies, including Google and Facebook, began participating in the program in early 2009, soon after Yahoo lost its appeal before the lower FISA court.
Several major US Internet companies, including Microsoft, Google and Facebook have asked Washington for permission to disclose the number of national security-related user data requests they receive.
Until recent weeks, Yahoo was prohibited from discussing its activities in the secret courts or even acknowledging the existence of its legal challenge.
In the coming weeks, the government is expected to publish the lower FISA court’s 2008 ruling in the Yahoo case and legal briefs related to it.
In an uncommon move, the US had previously agreed to declassify a heavily redacted version of the appeals court ruling.