Reddit removes ‘warrant canary’, signaling US sought its user data

US national security authorities may now view Reddit as a way to spy on people.

A collection of message boards filled with notoriously vocal users, the pseudo-anonymous service on Thursday removed a line – a “warrant canary” – from its annual report on government data requests that said it had never received a secret request for user data under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or Fisa.

So-called national security letters seeking data are usually secret by nature and the recipients often cannot acknowledge their existence. As a clever workaround, many technology companies put declarations on their websites or in their data request reports stating that, as of a certain date, they’ve never received a national security letter.

The understanding is that if they do ever receive such a letter, they will remove the declarations as a sort of early warning system, like the doomed birds in a coal mine.

On Thursday, Reddit appeared to do just that. For the website’s users, which are legion, it offers a sobering, if unsurprising, reminder that what they say and do on Reddit is just as likely to be targeted by investigators as Facebook posts and Gmail messages are.

In early 2015, Reddit’s transparency report on government data requests included these sentences: “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.”

Those lines are missing from the transparency report Reddit published Thursday. The company did not return a request for comment.

Reddit users are well-known as a combative and skeptical bunch. After Reddit posted the transparency report Thursday, some of them asked an administrator, called “spez”, what happened to the warrant canary.

“I’ve been advised not to say anything one way or the other,” spez said. “Even with the canaries, we’re treading a fine line. The whole thing is icky.”

In 2014, Twitter sued the Justice Department for violating its free speech rights by blocking it from disclosing how many national security letters it receives. That case is ongoing.

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