Apple's Patriot-Act-detecting "warrant canary" dies

It's been less than a day since the company published its new, excellent privacy policy -- but Gigaom has noticed that the latest Apple transparency report, covering Jan 1-Jun 30 2014, has eliminated the line that says that the company has received no secret Patriot Act "section 215" requests, which come with gag orders prohibiting companies from discussing them.

Apple is one of several companies whose transparency reports contain these warrant canaries -- Apple's dates from November 2013. They became more widely used after the revelations of mass surveillance brought to light by Edward Snowden.

The premise of a warrant canary is that Section 215 of the Patriot Act can compel companies not to tell anyone about being served with a warrant, but that the law can't compel a company to lie and say that it hasn't received a warrant. This has not been tested in court yet.

It seems likely, based on the latest report, that Apple has now received at least one of the secret surveillance requests.

The warrant canary’s disappearance is significant because Section 215 of the Patriot Act permits the National Security Agency to demand companies to hand over their business records in secret, and is believed to be the legal foundation of the controversial PRISM program, which forced major tech companies like Google and Yahoo to participate in a data-collection scheme.

The Patriot Act tool is also controversial because the NSA gains permission to use it by applying to the FISA Court, a body where only the government can speak and whose records are kept almost entirely secret. The tech industry has been battling to disclose the existence of so-called “FISA requests” and only won the right to do so this year; however, companies must wait six months to disclose the number of requests they receive, and can only do so as a range (such as “0-999″).

Apple’s “warrant canary” disappears, suggesting new Patriot Act demands [Jeff John Roberts/Gigaom]

(Image: Jean-Baptiste Greuze - A Girl with a Dead Canary, Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)

Notable Replies

  1. Strange that this should come up, exactly as Apple is saying iOS8 makes it impossible for them to turn your iPhone or iPad data over to law enforcement, even in the presence of a warrant. Hmm.

  2. Question is, can they "reset" the canary? I'm not sure what their original canary statement was exactly, or, if the statement "We received no 215 Requests in the previous quarter" skates closer to the line than "We've never received a 215 request". It would be most instructive if the next statement they release contained such a line, as it would confirm that the canary did in fact die, and a new one was procured, rather than them simply abandoning the practice or judging it too risky.

    And obviously it does no good to ask them about it.

  3. Well of course not! Eric Holder would put Apple Computer in jail!

  4. "We have received no 215 requests since January 14, 2014 at 2:30 pm"

  5. bzishi says:

    My guess is that the Justice Department or the FISA court threatened Apple with contempt or criminal charges for having the canary. Or perhaps Obama simply issues a NSL to every place he finds a canary to invalidate them immediately.

Continue the discussion

10 more replies