Reddit Warrant Canary

Reddit ‘Warrant Canary’: Is The U.S. Government Spying On Reddit Users?

R.I.P., Reddit “warrant canary.”

Apparently, the figurative bird met its end, signaling that social media hub Reddit can no longer confirm (or deny) being hit up by a government agency or members of law enforcement about user data.

According to PC World, a “warrant canary” is a type of warning used by certain websites that notify members that their online interactions could be the subject of an active investigation by authorities. Usually, it exists in the form of a disclaimer, stating that no such user data access had been previously requested. BBC writes that the term is borrowed from the early warning birds used to warn of toxic gases down in mine shafts; the death of the birds would let workers know something was wrong.

In this case, once the “warrant canary” is removed, it must be assumed that such a request has been made — even though site owners technically made no such admission.

Reddit’s “warrant canary” disclaimer, which was featured in the company’s 2014 transparency report, stated the following:

“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.”

Based on the fact that no such claim exists in the 2015 transparency report — which was released on Thursday — it’s possible that this was no longer true after this date.

The passive manner in which Reddit may (or may not) have tipped off their users is a somewhat less confrontational approach from Twitter. The Guardian reports that Twitter filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department in 2014 over perceived freedom of speech violations centered on an inability to disclose the truth about NSLs it received.

Still, before anyone accuses Reddit of willingly complying with “the man,” it’s worth noting the forum threw its full support behind Twitter and Apple’s efforts to fight the government’s acts of privacy infringement.

Watchdog Reddit users picked up on the absence of the “warrant canary” almost immediately and began to ask questions. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman (known as user “spez”) addressed the issue more thoroughly in a forum discussion titled, “For your reading pleasure, our 2015 Transparency Report.”

“We know the success of Reddit is made possible by your trust. We hope this transparency report strengthens that trust, and is a signal to you that we care deeply about your privacy.”

“I’ll do my best to answer questions,” said Huffman, while admitting that “as with all legal matters” it was possible he couldn’t “always be completely candid.” When a Redditor named slyf brought up the fact that the “warrant canary” was no longer in existence, the Reddit CEO responded,

“Even with the canaries, we’re treading a fine line. The whole thing is icky, which is why we joined Twitter in pushing back.”

Huffman also said,

“I’ve been advised not to say anything one way or the other.”

It was clear to many concerned members of the Reddit community that the site’s user data had likely already been compromised.

With Reddit’s “warrant canary” gone, it’s likely that Redditors are going to have to be a bit more mindful of what sort of things they say or do on the site. The only silver lining could be that knowledge of possible surveillance could discourage genuinely nefarious characters from posting to the site. But yet, even if that were achieved, the loss of privacy and potential violations of First Amendment rights for practically everyone on Reddit seems to be quite a steep price.

Do you think social media sites like Reddit are right to warn their users via a “warrant canary?” Please share your thoughts on the controversy below!

[Image via Reddit/Twitter]