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Warrant canary

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Library warrant canary relying on active removal designed by Jessamyn West

A warrant canary is a method by which a communications service provider aims to implicitly inform its users that the provider has been served with a government subpoena despite legal prohibitions on revealing the existence of the subpoena. The warrant canary typically informs users that there has not been a court-issued subpoena as of a particular date. If the canary is not updated for the period specified by the host or if the warning is removed, users might assume the host has been served with such a subpoena. The intention is for a provider to passively warn users of the existence of a subpoena, albeit violating the spirit of a court order not to do so, while not violating the letter of the order.

Some subpoenas, such as those covered under 18 U.S.C. §2709(c) (enacted as part of the USA Patriot Act), provide criminal penalties for disclosing the existence of the subpoena to any third party, including the service provider's users.[1][2]

National Security Letters (NSL) originated in the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act and originally targeted those suspected of being agents of a foreign power.[3] Targeting agents of a foreign power was revised in the Patriot Act in 2001 to allow NSLs to target those who may have information thought to be relevant to either counterintelligence activities or terrorists activities directed against the United States.[3] The idea of using negative pronouncements to thwart the nondisclosure requirements of court orders and served secret warrants was first proposed by Steven Schear on the cypherpunks mailing list,[4] mainly to uncover targeted individuals at ISPs. It was also suggested for and used by public libraries in 2002 in response to the USA Patriot Act, which could have forced librarians to disclose the circulation history of library patrons.[5][6]


The term is an allusion to the practice of coal miners bringing canaries into mines to use as an early-warning signal for toxic gases, primarily carbon monoxide and methane.[7] The birds are more sensitive to these gases than humans, and became sick before the miners, who would then have a chance to escape or put on protective respirators.[8]


A sign in a library in Craftsbury, Vermont in 2005

The first commercial use of a warrant canary was by the US cloud storage provider rsync.net, which began publishing its canary in 2006.[9] In addition to a digital signature, it provides a recent news headline as proof that the warrant canary was recently posted[10] as well as mirroring the posting internationally.[11]

On November 5, 2013, Apple became the most prominent company to publicly state that it had never received an order for user data under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.[12][13] On September 18, 2014, GigaOm reported that the warrant canary statement did not appear anymore in the next two Apple Transparency Reports, covering July–December 2013 and January–June 2014.[14] Tumblr also included a warrant canary in the transparency report that it issued on February 3, 2014.[15] In August 2014, the online cloud service Spider Oak implemented an encrypted warrant canary that publishes an "All Clear!" message every 6 months. Three PGP signatures from geographically distributed signers must sign each message—so if a government agency forced SpiderOak to update the page, they would need to enlist the help of all three signers.[16]

In September 2014, U.S. security researcher Moxie Marlinspike wrote that "every lawyer I've spoken to has indicated that having a 'canary' you remove or choose not to update would likely have the same legal consequences as simply posting something that explicitly says you've received something."[17][18]

In March 2015 it was reported that Australia outlawed the use of a certain kind of warrant canary, making it illegal to "disclose information about the existence or non-existence" of a Journalist Information Warrant issued under new mandatory data retention laws.[19] Afterwards, computer security and privacy specialist Bruce Schneier wrote in a blog post that "[p]ersonally, I have never believed [warrant canaries] would work. It relies on the fact that a prohibition against speaking doesn't prevent someone from not speaking. But courts generally aren't impressed by this sort of thing, and I can easily imagine a secret warrant that includes a prohibition against triggering the warrant canary. And for all I know, there are right now secret legal proceedings on this very issue."[20] This is not the first Australian law to outlaw warrant canaries. The "Telecommunications (Interception) Amendment Act 1995" was probably the first, making it illegal to "disclose information about the existence or non-existence" of Interception Warrants.[21]

That said, case law specific to the United States would render the covert continuance of warrant canaries subject to constitutionality challenges.[citation needed] West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette and Wooley v. Maynard rule the Free Speech Clause prohibits compelling someone to speak against one's wishes; this can easily be extended to prevent someone from being compelled to lie. New York Times Co. v. United States protects one exercising the First Amendment to publish government information, even if it is against the wishes of the government, except under grave and exceptional circumstances previously set by act and precedent. This may also have implications in regards to acting against a direct government intervention, similar to a government intervention against a warrant canary.[citation needed]

Companies and organizations that no longer have warrant canaries[edit]

The following is a non-exhaustive list of companies and organizations whose warrant canaries no longer appear in transparency reports:

Canary Watch[edit]

In 2015, a coalition of organizations consisting of the EFF, Freedom of the Press Foundation, NYU Law, the Calyx Institute, and the Berkman Center created a website called Canary Watch in order to provide a compiled list of all companies providing warrant canaries. Its mission was to provide prompt updates of any changes in a canary's state. It is often difficult for users to ascertain a canary's validity on their own and thus Canary Watch aimed to provide a simple display of all active canaries and any blocks of time that they were not active.[25] In May 2016, it was announced that Canary Watch "will no longer accept submissions of new canaries or monitor the existing canaries for changes or take downs".[26] The coalition of organizations which created Canary Watch explained their decision to discontinue the project by stating that it has achieved its goals to raise awareness about "illegal and unconstitutional national security process, including National Security Letters and other secret court processes." The Electronic Frontier Foundation also noted that "the fact that canaries are non-standard makes it difficult to automatically monitor them for changes or takedowns." They explained that the project had run its course, that ample attention had been brought to canaries, and detailed warrant canary strengths and weaknesses they observed.[26]


In 2016, the Riseup tech collective failed to update their warrant canary, due to sealed warrants from a court.[27][28] The canary has since been updated, but no longer states the absence of gag orders.[29]

In February 2024, the Ethereum Foundation removed the warrant canary from their website[30] citing "[a] voluntary enquiry from a state authority that included a requirement for confidentiality" in the commit message.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Nadine Strossen (2005), "Safety and freedom: Common concerns for conservatives, libertarians, and civil libertarians" (PDF), Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, vol. 29, no. 73, pp. 78–79, retrieved January 3, 2014
  2. ^ Eunice Moscoso (August 17, 2003), "Subpoenas Fly In Hunt For Hidden Terrorists", Palm Beach Post, p. 1A
  3. ^ a b Shaun Waterman (September 30, 2004), "Ashcroft: U.S. will appeal terror-law ruling", United Press International, retrieved January 3, 2014
  4. ^ "Re: ISP Utility To Cypherpunks? Yahoo! Groups". Tech.groups.yahoo.com. October 31, 2002. Archived from the original on November 3, 2013. Retrieved 2013-06-13.
  5. ^ West, Jessamyn (2002). "Five Technically Legal Signs for Your Library". Librarian.net : avoiding the PATRIOT Act since 2001. Archived from the original on December 18, 2002. Retrieved 2013-11-14.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  6. ^ Doctorow, Cory (September 9, 2013). "How to foil NSA sabotage: use a dead man's switch - Technology". The Guardian (UK). Retrieved 2013-11-14.
  7. ^ David A. Bengston, Diane S. Henshel, "Environmental Toxicology and Risk Assessment: Biomarkers and Risk Assessment", ASTM International, 1996, ISBN 0803120311, p 220.
  8. ^ Pollard, Lewis (2018-03-27). "The canary resuscitator". Science and Industry Museum blog. Retrieved 2021-10-13.
  9. ^ "An ISP that protects your data from the NSA". Reddit - May 26, 2006. Retrieved January 5, 2016.
  10. ^ "rsync.net Warrant Canary". rsync.net. Retrieved June 12, 2013.
  11. ^ Kozubik, John (August 6, 2010). "The Warrant Canary in 2010 and Beyond". Blog.kozubik.com. Retrieved 2013-06-13.
  12. ^ Farivar, Cyrus (5 November 2013). "Apple takes strong privacy stance in new report, publishes rare "warrant canary"". ArsTechnica.com. Retrieved 5 November 2013.
  13. ^ "Report on Government Access Requests" (PDF). Apple.com. November 5, 2013. Retrieved 2013-11-15.
  14. ^ Roberts, Jeff John (2014-09-18). "Apple's "warrant canary" disappears, suggesting new Patriot Act demands". Gigaom. Retrieved 2014-09-18.
  15. ^ Collier, Kevin (4 February 2014). "The NSA could not care less about your Tumblr blog". The Daily Dot. Retrieved 13 February 2014.
  16. ^ Kumparak, Greg (14 August 2014). "SpiderOak Implements A Warrant Canary". TechCrunch. AOL Inc. Retrieved 28 January 2017.
  17. ^ Marlinspike, Moxie (22 September 2014). "If it's illegal to advertise that you've received a court order of some kind..." GitHub. Archived from the original on 27 October 2014. Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  18. ^ Meyer, David (1 April 2016). "How Reddit Strongly Hinted It Received a Secret Surveillance Order". Fortune. Time Inc. Retrieved 3 April 2016.
  19. ^ Doctorow, Cory (26 March 2015). "Australia outlaws warrant canaries". Boing Boing. Retrieved March 26, 2015.
  20. ^ Schneier, Bruce (31 March 2015). "Australia Outlaws Warrant Canaries". Schneier on Security. Retrieved 21 June 2015.
  21. ^ Anderson, Shae (14 February 2021). "Has Australia killed the warrant canary?". Retrieved 14 February 2021.
  22. ^ Farivar, Cyrus (18 September 2014). "No, Apple probably did not get new secret government orders to hand over data". Ars Technica. Condé Nast. Retrieved 21 June 2016.
  23. ^ Volz, Dustin (31 March 2016). "Reddit deletes surveillance 'warrant canary' in transparency report". Reuters. Retrieved 31 March 2016.
  24. ^ Lomas, Natasha (5 July 2016). "Silent Circle silently snuffs out its warrant canary — but claims it's a "business decision"". TechCrunch. AOL Inc. Retrieved 6 July 2016.
  25. ^ "Canary Watch tracks government requests for your information online". Gizmag. 4 February 2015. Retrieved 5 March 2015.
  26. ^ a b Quintin, Cooper (25 May 2016). "Canary Watch – One Year Later". Deeplinks (Blog). Electronic Frontier Foundation. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  27. ^ "Disparity in the RiseUp Canary - GPG RSA Key Was Changed By ONE Character At The Last Update". Reddit. 2016-11-18.
  28. ^ "Episode 1: Riseup, Technological Centralization & Snitching". 23 February 2017. Archived from the original on 2017-03-04. Retrieved 2017-12-21.
  29. ^ Whittaker, Zack. "Encrypted email service Riseup sparks worry after warrant canary appears to expire". ZDNet. Retrieved 2019-11-10.
  30. ^ "this commit removes a section of the footer as we have received a voluntary enquiry from a state authority that included a requirement for confidentiality". GitHub. Retrieved 20 March 2024.

Further reading[edit]

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