Reddit removes ‘warrant canary’ from its transparency report

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Reddit removed a section from its 2015 transparency report, but if you ask company representatives why, they won’t be able to tell you. The removed text is what’s known as a “warrant canary,” a clever way to signal that the government may have forced a company to hand over information without actually saying it. As for what Reddit had to give up, that’s a secret — it has to be unless someone wants to spend a lot of time in jail.

In the company’s 2014 transparency report, the warrant canary was still singing. 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. If we ever receive such a request, we would seek to let the public know it existed.” However, it’s unlikely Reddit would be able to let anyone know, and that’s the purpose of the canary.

Many companies use a warrant canary in privacy and transparency reports as a way of keeping users in the loop when it comes to their data. Reddit, like other online communities, generates a lot of user data. There might be times that federal law enforcement and intelligence entities decide they need access to that data, and they will get it. These National Security Letters or Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act orders often come with a gag order. That means the company that is served with the letter is not permitted by law to say they’ve gotten the letter at all. What they can do, however, is tell you when they haven’t gotten one.

So, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine that dies when exposed to toxic gas, the warrant canary dies when exposed to a secret government demand for information. The thinking is that courts can compel a company not to divulge the existence of a national security order, but they cannot force a company to lie and say that it has not received one. That’s probably all the information users will get, though. When users noted the lack of a canary in the transparency 2015 report, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman replied on the site to say, “I’ve been advised not to say anything one way or the other.”

This may very well mean that US intelligence agencies have a cache of data from Reddit that includes your personal activity. Much of what happens on Reddit is public anyway, so any national security order probably pertained to private messages or invite-only sub-Reddits. We’ll probably never find out what exactly was handed over, but the canary died to let us know something went down.