Reddit’s missing ‘warrant canary’ suggests classified data requests from feds

Reddit issued its annual transparency report Thursday morning, listing the amount and type of data requested by various authorities. There’s plenty of interesting info, but perhaps most interesting is what’s not there: the site’s “warrant canary.”

Regular data requests via subpoenas or court orders are more or less public information, and can be tallied up and reported: this many search warrants, this many subpoenas, and so on. But there are also requests that are the opposite of public: National Security Letters. These come with built-in gag orders: it’s illegal to even say that you’ve received one, much less what it was about.

There’s a loophole, though: even the Patriot Act and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act can’t prevent you from saying you’ve never received an NSL. And Reddit’s 2014 transparency report did just that:


That language, however, was gone from 2015’s report. Without breaking the law, Reddit has announced that it has received an NSL or similar such order. This disappearing language is what’s known as a “warrant canary,” a sort of one-time warning that yes, the feds are playing hardball. (Strictly speaking this one could be called an NSL canary, but the phrase isn’t quite as clicky.)

The absence of the NSL language was quickly noticed, and user slyf pointed it out. Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, AKA spez, responded in short order, saying that “even with the canaries, we’re treading a fine line.”

Later in the same thread, in response to speculation that an NSL had been received, he added that “I’ve been advised not to say anything one way or the other.” That’s as much of a confirmation as anyone is likely to offer without calling down the black helicopters.

That’s not to say Reddit caved — or didn’t cave — to the feds. NSLs can be fought, and even triumphed over, but until a court decides the letter is no longer binding, it’s a serious crime to even talk about it.

Reddit has publicly joined companies like Twitter, Automattic, and Google in asserting that it is a first amendment right to be able to report having received an NSL. Several of those companies recently filed an Amicus brief in a lawsuit filed by Twitter against the U.S. government — specifically, in response to the government’s motion to dismiss the case.

The whole business is shady and a bit confusing, but with luck greater and more comprehensive transparency is forthcoming — or perhaps a leak on one side or the other will force the issue.

As for the rest of the Reddit report, the general trend is upwards: 98 requests for user information, up from 55 the previous year, though a similar amount (about 60 percent) were accommodated. A handful of requests from various countries to take down posts, to which Reddit responded largely by blocking those posts from being viewed by users in those countries.

Of DMCA takedown notices there were many — too many, it seems, for Reddit to list properly. The report only notes that (as an example of the volume it was dealing with) it received 190 takedown requests during January and February, and complied with 5 percent of them.

Spez also fielded a few questions regarding Reddit privacy policies, confirming that yes, they occasionally read private messages when there are reports of spam or threats of violence. He also gave some poignant advice on how to respond when users tell mods to take down posts or comments: