Warrant Canaries: What Are They And Why Do They Matter?

Law Blog

What does a coal mine canary have in common with the user agreements of various internet communication service providers, like Apple, Microsoft, and (now) Reddit? Easy: they're both trying to silently warn you that there could be trouble coming. Here's what you should know about so-called "warrant canaries" and how they (possibly) apply to you.

What is a warrant canary?

Warrant canaries are named after the canaries coal miners used to keep while working in the mines. The birds were very sensitive to dangerous gas leaks and would quickly die if exposed. Miners only had to listen for the regular chirping of the canary—its silence meant that conditions were rapidly becoming dangerous for humans.

Similarly, a warrant canary is a silent warning from internet communication service providers to users (like you) that conditions on the service could be dangerous. It's a subtle method of informing you that the government, usually under the authority of the Patriot Act, has served the company with one or more secret subpoenas that could endanger the privacy of anyone using their services.

The warrant canary is usually a simple message contained in the company's service agreement for users. It states something to the effect that the company has not been served with a secret government subpoena requesting access to its records. If the message disappears, that's the equivalent of a "dead canary." The company is no longer able to offer you any assurances of privacy.

Why does it matter to you?

Companies like Adobe, Tumblr, Pinterest, and others all have warrant canaries, and there are sites dedicated to keeping track of which canaries are "live." Companies concerned with user privacy feel that warrant canaries are necessary because the Patriot Act has such a broad reach. Demands for information, issued through the power of National Security Letters, are often coupled with gag orders that forbid companies from even acknowledging their existence. Furthermore, NSLs aren't subject to judicial oversight—which means that there is nothing standing between an overzealous federal investigation and your private information.

Warrant canaries are one of the few ways that companies can attempt to warn users that their private communications might not be so private and could be under investigation by the U.S. government. You need to be aware that everything that you do through a service provided by any company with a "dead" canary could be subject to investigation by the U.S. government. Federal agents could be privy to any conversation you conduct through that company's services. They can also view any photo or files you shared, no matter how private you intended them to be. Your personal information, including your location and the people that you regularly correspond with, can all be identified.

Watchdog groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation indicate that this ability has lead to widespread abuses of power by the FBI, including tens of thousands of violations of the law. That should concern anyone who regularly shares personal information over the internet.

Are you concerned about your legal liability for something that you've posted or shared online? If you have concerns, don't wait until you're facing an arrest warrant. Contact an attorney today to seek legal counsel.


9 April 2016

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