Reddit has hinted that US security agencies issued it with one or more secret orders in 2015 that forced it to hand over information on its users.
The social networking forum released its annual transparency report on Thursday but there was some key language missing. Namely, the site’s “warrant canary.”
A warrant canary is a clause that some companies use in their reports to tacitly let the public know whether they have received a government surveillance request.
As long as that “canary” keeps appearing in a transparency report then it’s safe for the public to assume that intelligence agencies aren’t trying to secretly access information that these platforms hold on their users.
But if a company deletes its warrant canary, it indicates it has received a National Security Letter (NSL) or a court order under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
National Security Letters, or NSLs, are issued by the FBI and force internet services providers and other companies to hand over confidential information about their users, including websites visited, email addresses, and phone numbers.
(Warrant canaries are called as such because they act as a sort of early warning system — similar to the way that canaries were once used in coal mines to alert miners if dangerous gases were present.)
Which brings us to Reddit. Unlike its 2014 transparency report, the company’s 2015 edition doesn’t include any mention of the number of “national security requests” it receives under the US Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or Fisa.
Recipients of NSLs are usually issued with gagging orders that prevent them from talking about the fact they have received a letter. However, there’s a loophole in that companies are able to say they have never received an NSL (as Reddit did in 2014).
By removing that claim, it looks like Reddit has — without breaking the law — just announced that it has recieved an NSL or similar classified order.
So if Reddit did receive a national security letter, what was it about? Reddit obviously can’t say, because it’s classified. But one user called “triplebream” theorises that US intelligence agencies wanted Reddit to provide them with information that could be used to determine Edward Snowden’s whereabouts. “My guess: they wanted to see what IP address Snowden was connecting from, or what other data on his whereabouts they could otherwise extract from his browser headers or from browser fingerprinting,” they wrote.