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Can Tech Giants Be Sued For PRISM Involvement?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on June 12, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

There have been nine tech giants accused of involvement in the PRISM surveillance according to the information provided by the now out of the jurisdiction Edward Snowden: AOL, Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, PalTalk, Skype, Yahoo, and YouTube.

All of these companies who were linked to the PRISM program, according to The Washington Post, have staunchly denied involvement or even knowledge of the surveillance, which seems odd in light of federal law which immunizes them from suit based on their involvement.

And Lo, No Suit Shall Ye Bring Against Apple

The amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in 2008, added crucial provisions which immunized the participants in this allegedly highly classified dragnet from being sued in state or federal court.

While no tech giant was granted any special favors, each company receives their own federal indulgences through the operation of 50 USC § 1881a(h)(3), providing "no cause of action shall lie in any court" against an electronic communication service provider (i.e. Apple, Google, et. al) for providing assistance to the NSA.

This provision should serve to block any future lawsuits by angry tech mobs and privacy groups who are out for Apple and Facebook's blood for sharing their data.

'Twas Not Us, For We Knew Not

Each of the nine tech giants has made its own denial in light of the allegations of aid and comfort to the government's PRISM project, and here are some choice quotes from their respective CEOs:

  • Yahoo! - "We carefully scrutinize each request, respond only when required to do so, and provide the least amount of data possible consistent with the law," reports Business Insider.
  • Facebook - "Facebook is not and has never been part of any program to give the U.S. or any other government direct access to our servers," reports CNET.
  • Google - "We have not joined any programme that would give the U.S. government -- or any government -- direct access to our servers," reports Huffington Post UK.

Something Cryptic This Way Comes

The theme that emerges from these statements is that these companies did not:

  1. Join PRISM
  2. Give them direct access
  3. Provide them any illegal data or more than required by law

In addition, Mark Rumold of the Electronic Frontier Foundation believes that companies under a FISA order may be prevented from disclosing "any information about the order at all," reports ABC News.

It would not be contradictory, however, if the allegations regarding PRISM are true, that these tech giants indirectly provided data access, without joining the formal program, and not more data than their lawyers believed was necessary.

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