Social networking forum Reddit deleted a paragraph in its 2015 transparency report known as a "warrant canary," which was there in the 2014 version of the report.
"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. If we ever receive such a request, we would seek to let the public know it existed," wrote Reddit at the end of its 2014 transparency report.
The paragraph serves as a warrant canary, and it works by having the company, in this case Reddit, publish a notice that it has not received requests in relation to government surveillance. If the warrant canary is removed, then users can assume that such request has already been made to Reddit.
The concept of the warrant canary stems from the fact that while a court can place a gag order to prevent a company or person from speaking out about a national security letter or a classified request for user information, it could not order a company or person to lie. Therefore, the court could not force Reddit to keep the warrant canary included in its transparency report to cover up for the government surveillance request, as that would be false.
According to Electronic Frontier Foundation deputy executive director and general counsel Kurt Opsahl, Reddit is the first company that he is aware of which "killed" its canary.
When users asked if Reddit was served a secret court order for user information in one of the forum's sections, known as subreddits, Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, known by his username "spez," said that he has been advised not to reveal anything about the matter.
Huffman added that, even with the warrant canary, Reddit is treading a fine line. Warrant canaries have never been tested in court, and if the government would challenge companies that are using it, they could find themselves in legal trouble.
The removal of Reddit's warrant canary comes as tech companies are calling for the Obama administration to allow fuller disclosure of the kind and number of classified government requests for user information that the companies receive.