Reddit recently removed its so-called ‘warrant canary’ from its latest transparency report. That means anyone conducting illegal activity through the site might want to move their behavior to the dark web.
A warrant canary is a statement claiming that a website has not received any classified requests from government or law enforcement regarding the personal information of its users. Like a famous canaries used in mines in order to alert miners of the presence of toxic gases, the removal of this statement from Reddit’s 2015 report (the canary was still kicking in 2014) alerts users of the initiation of government snooping.
The FBI has the power to issue national security letters demanding the ability to conduct online surveillance in the United States without first obtaining court approval. These requests commonly arrive alongside a gagging order, which prevents websites from publicly disclosing that the demand has taken place.
One way that websites have managed to quietly alert their users without actually informing them in a way that might make the website liable has been to include in their transparency reports a clause that states that no classified requests have been received. When another transparency report is issued that lacks said clause, the absence acts as a quiet indication of the report having been issued.
Reddit’s first transparency report was issued in 2015 with the warrant canary in tact. It read,” As of January 29, 2015, Reddit has never received a National Security Letter, an order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or any other classified request for user information.”
When its more recent transparency report was received without the canary, Reddit representatives were of course asked about the canary’s disappearance, to which one Reddit administrator replied, “I’ve been advised not to say anything one way or the other.”
The site elaborated that it had received 98 requests that it was allowed to disclose over the course of 2015, which was almost twice as many requests as Reddit received in 2014. Reddit disclosed that it complied with around 60% of the requests, two-thirds of which originated in the United States.
That Reddit has been given a request that it is not expected to disclose may imply that a more serious threat is being targeted via Reddit, or that the United States is attempting to catch some threatening criminals in the act and don’t want Reddit to blow their cover.
That the canary’s disappearance does not count as somehow violating the gagging order issued by the FBI seems somewhat surprising; although some may call it a “loop-hole,” it seems to do exactly what the gagging order prohibits. However, the important detail here might be that the actual request itself was not disclosed, so no Reddit users can actually know what it is that the FBI is attempting to snoop on. Perhaps this lack of detail will be enough for the canary’s absence to not constitute a real impeding factor to the FBI’s case.
However, it seems likely that the FBI will want to put an end to the canary system at some point in time.