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One of the most troubling aspects of online surveillance is its lack of transparency.
Under national security laws adopted after 9/11, government agencies have the ability to examine Internet records without notifying the public. In many cases, a website or ISP is subpoenaed to hand over records to the government and told that if it attempts to alert its users to what is happening it will be in violation of the law.
In response, many websites and ISPs have come up with an innovative solution to getting around national security gag orders. They will simply keep a message on the site—either on a separate page or at the bottom of the screen—telling users that they haven’t received any surveillance requests. The moment a site does receive such a request, it stops displaying or updating this message.
It’s the proverbial canary in a coal mine. The minute it stops making noise, you know there’s trouble. In fact, that’s what these messages have come to be called: warrant canaries. And now there is a new site dedicated to letting you know which canaries are safe and which have been compromised by secret subpoenas and warrants.
Canary Watch is a website designed to help bring transparency to the world of online surveillance. A joint venture of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, New York University’s Technology Law & Policy Clinic, and the Calyx Institute, Canary Watch keeps a constant eye on the warrant canaries of major ISPs and websites with regularly posted updates.
According to Nicholas Merrill of the Calyx Institute, which hosts the site, Canary Watch is a legal way for websites and ISPs to push back against the government agencies that attempt to hide their surveillance activities through gag orders.
“As someone who has spent most of my career as an Internet service provider I think this is an exciting project because it encourages ‘push back’ against warrantless surveillance and their associated life-long gag orders—which have been repeatedly ruled unconstitutional in federal court—and which the president himself has spoken out against—but which the Department of Justice has stubbornly continued to abuse,” Merrill tells the Daily Dot.
Merrill says the canaries have sprung up from the “great deal of resentment” Internet companies feel in the face of “abusive” government surveillance. Warrant canaries first appeared in 2013 in the wake of the Edward Snowden leaks, in which many Web companies claimed powerlessness in the face of national security information requests and government subpoenas.
Canary Watch points users toward the canary pages kept by popular websites like Reddit, Tumblr, and Pinterest. On these pages you can learn, for instance, that Reddit claims to have received 29 U.S. subpoenas last year and given up user information in 59 percent of those cases.
However, there is a catch to all this. As Canary Watch itself plainly admits, there is no way of knowing for sure if the information posted by these websites is true or if it’s just good PR. Also, warrant canaries aren’t standardized. Some websites may have a full-page report, others may have just a single line at the bottom of the homepage. And it’s not always apparent how often the information is updated.
Still Merrill hopes Canary Watch can help encourage more websites to create warrant canaries to shed light on government snooping.
“My hope is that by highlighting the growing number of courageous organizations and companies who are adopting warrant canaries as a way to keep their users informed about what the government is trying to do with their most private data, that it will convince more companies that they would not be going out on a limb by following suit,” he says.
Photo via Dario Sanches/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Tim Sampson is a reporter who focused on the technology, business, and politics beats. He's also an established comedy writer, with work on Comedy Central and in The Onion and ClickHole.