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Reddit hints it received secret government order to hand over user information

'[W]e're treading a fine line. The whole thing is icky.'


Aaron Sankin


Posted on Apr 1, 2016   Updated on May 27, 2021, 12:18 am CDT

The popular social news site Reddit dropped a strong hint on Thursday that, over the past year, it received at least one secret court order to turn over user data to the government. 

The signal came in the form of the removal of a passage from its annual transparency report, which details the number of requests the site received from government officials to take down posts and hand over user data to officials.

In the report on 2014, which was released last year, company representatives wrote, “As of January 29, 2015, [R]eddit 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.”

In the report about 2015, that passage was conspicuously absent—a tactic known as a “warrant canary.”

National security letters (NSL) are subpoenas issued by law enforcement and intelligence agencies regarding information collection on national security matters that don’t require the approval of a judge. While most government information requests are essentially public, NSL frequently come with a gag order, meaning affected companies are forbidden to explicit say if they had been served with one.

As Wired notes, even though the U.S. government has issued hundreds of thousands of national security letters over the years, details are only publicly known about a very small number. In fact, the first details on NSL came in December after Nicholas Merrill, former president of Calyx Internet Access, won the right to disclose his receipt of an NSL.

As a work-around, many companies have created “warrant canaries,” a public post stating that they’ve never been served with a national security letter, which is then removed once that’s no longer true. The tactic allows firms to signal to its users that it had been targeted without violating the gag order. Warrant canaries are a global phenomenon—except in Australia, where the practice is prohibited.

The website lists over 60 tech companies employing warrant canaries of some fashion.

When asked by Reddit users about the disappearance of the warrant canary in this year’s transparency report, Reddit co-founder and CEO Steve Huffman responded, “I’ve been advised not to say anything one way or the other.”

Representatives from Reddit did not respond to the Daily Dot’s request for comment.

Reddit has joined with a coalition of other tech companies to challenge the government’s rationale for denying the ability to disclose to users the existence of a national security letter issued to the company, even if the details of that letter—such as the individual user being targeted—is left out. 

In 2014, Twitter sued the Department of Justice over rules about what it could disclose, and Reddit filed an amicus brief supporting the micro-blogging service’s position.

In a reply on that same Reddit thread, Huffman added, “Even with the canaries, we’re treading a fine line. The whole thing is icky, which is why we joined Twitter in pushing back.”

Photo via Juan Emilio/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY SA 2.0)

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*First Published: Apr 1, 2016, 2:59 pm CDT