A warrant canary is a posted document stating that an organization has not received any secret subpoenas during a specific period of time. If this document fails to be updated during the specified time then the user is to assume that the service has received such a subpoena and should stop using the service.
In 2002, the FBI used the newly-passed Patriot Act to demand that libraries secretly turn over records of patrons’ reading materials and Internet use. The libraries had to comply – even though such secret requests go against the entire ethos of a professional librarian. To get around the government’s mandate not to disclose the orders, some libraries came up with a potential workaround: they hung signs on their entrances stating, “The FBI has not been here (watch very closely for the removal of this sign).” The idea was that, like a canary in a coal mine, the presence of the sign would reassure the public, and its removal would signal to those watching closely that all was no longer well. An order not to disclose something may differ legally from an order compelling continued, false notices that no national security request has been served, and warrant canary notices work by exploiting that difference.
The hypothetical canary that provides individualized notices to each user illustrates the extent to which canaries are essentially end-runs around lawful gag orders. Companies exploit the potential legal loophole in the difference between compelled silence and compelled lies in order to communicate information that they would otherwise be prohibited from sharing. The fact that so many companies are adopting canaries, even at the risk of exposing themselves to litigation and—at the outside—potential criminal liability, highlights how out of step even routine national security requests have become with the companies’ willingness to turn over information on their users. Like Apple’s recent embrace of automatic encryption, canaries are a symptom of the growing public desire to maintain control over personal data. In the end, then, canaries do not only signal information about national security requests that companies couldn’t otherwise communicate; they also signal the dissonance between the government’s emphasis on secrecy and industry’s willingness to cooperate. The era of companies sharing data with the government in the name of patriotism with just a shake of the hand is now over.
Warrant Canary Examples:
Related warrant canary information:
- Warrant Canary Frequently Asked Questions
- Canarywatch.org – Lists warrant canaries, tracks changes or disappearances of canaries
- Companies and organizations with warrant canaries