Canarywatch: fine-grained, high-alert system to detect and reveal secret government snooping

In the age of secret government snooping warrants -- which come with gag orders prohibiting their recipients from revealing their existence -- "warrant canaries" have emerged as the best way to keep an eye on out-of-control, unaccountable spying, and now they've gotten better.

Its not illegal for companies that publish "transparency reports" listing how many secret government spying demands they're received to say that they've received zero such requests, and it's not illegal for them to simply omit mention of secret spying demands once they receive such a warrant

A new joint project, Canarywatch, combines the efforts of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, New York University’s Technology Law & Policy Clinic, and the Calyx Institute to track the status of all known warrant canaries.

Canarywatch lists the warrant canaries we know about, tracks changes or disappearances of those canaries, and allows users to submit canaries not listed on the site. For people with interest in a particular canary, the site will show any changes we know about. The page’s FAQ explains the mechanics and legal theories underpinning warrant canaries. It also has an anatomy of a canary that, since canaries come in so many different forms, helps anyone understand what they’re seeing when they look at a particular canary.

Warrant canaries are a unique tool ISPs have to provide users with more transparency about the government requests they do, and do not, receive. We hope the site will educate, improve the usefulness of warrant canaries for the general public, and help people with a special interest in canaries track them.

EFF Joins Coalition to Launch [Nadia Kayyali/EFF]

(Image: Serinus canaria -Parque Rural del Nublo, Gran Canaria, Spain, Juan Emilio, CC-BY-SA)

Notable Replies

  1. Depending on how effective this is, I cynically predict the introduction of legislation enabling the various Three-Letter-Agencies to compel communications service providers to actively lie and continue to declare they have not been served with subpoenas when, in fact, they have.

    I hope we take that sh!t at least as seriously as TPP.

  2. Thought... what about if the data in question are outside of the US jurisdiction, and/or the technician who can access them to fulfill the request (or can unlock them to access) is not within reach of the US jackbooted thugs? Can a system be designed to require the knowledge of not-US-law-bound individual that it is being accessed by such external entity, who then can publish the fact (e.g. decline the request and publish that it happened) without legal trouble in their own country?

    How could that be technically implemented in some elegant way?

  3. This is very put-an-ambulance-at-the-bottom-of-the-cliff stuff. I know that it's better to have an ambulance there than not while snoopers and the fearful and the corrupt are doing an end-run around democracy to prevent fences at the top of cliffs, but while supporting the canary, be angry that this near-useless canary bullshit even needs to be a thing, and never take your attention off solving the real causes of the problem. The current surveillance state is disgusting.

  4. CLamb says:

    A pity that they got the analogy wrong. It is not a mine canary but a deadman's switch or a watchman's cry. A mine canary is an early warning device. A deadman's switch and a watchman's cry are indicators which by the absence of an action indicate a problem.

  5. Nope. What will happen is a retroactive gag order - serve a warrant that orders that the service provider to refrain from having disclosed its past nonexistence. Or orders the service provider both to refrain from disclosing the warrant's existence now (by withdrawing the canary) and to tell the truth, so that the provider is in contempt either way. The law doesn't require logical consistency!

    And authoritarian thinking doesn't require logical consistency, either; in fact, compartmentalization of thinking is one of its hallmarks. The 'time travel' and 'Morton's Fork' versions of the warrants will be perfectly accepted by the authoritarians, while the 'actively lie' version might not. The trick with the 'Morton's Fork' version is that the argument to the court (and to public opinion) can simply harp on how evil (whichever course of action was taken) was, and ignore the fact that the same argument could be made against (opposite course of action).

    It's just like a traffic cop waving a truck into a 'no trucks allowed' lane, and then ticketing the truck for being there. (Happened to my brother. The cop admitted in court to doing just that, and the judge essentially said to my brother, 'bad day for you that you were there in the first place. Guilty.')

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