Years ago, canaries were carried into mines to warn of dangerous gases. Canaries are more sensitive to small amounts of lethal gases than are humans. If the canary died, it was a warning to the miners to get out of the mine immediately. Now the Electronic Freedom Foundation has developed an “electronic canary” that monitors government requests for information about a company’s customers.
The concept is very simple. The Patriot Act of 2013 allows the government to issue secret subpoenas to companies requesting any kind of information the company holds for its customers. The Act also demands secrecy; the companies are not allowed to mention they have received such a subpoena. Interestingly, there is no requirement to keep secret the fact that the company HAS NOT received such a subpoena.
A good example to illustrate the concept further is Reddit’s transparency report and warrant canary, first published January 29, 2015 and tracked on Canary Watch. The company once published a statement on its web site: “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.” When the statement was later removed, the EFF Canary realized that such a request obviously had been made and now the U.S. government was snooping into the private information of Reddit’s customers. If you are a Reddit customer, you might want to know that information.
The Canary Watch tracks such statements as well as any other security-related issues that it may legally monitor.
You can read more, including a long list of companies that apparently have received subpoenas, at https://www.canarywatch.org. You probably will want to read the FAQs at https://www.canarywatch.org/faq.html.