Canary Watch: Activists create website to track & reveal NSA, FBI info requests

Reuters/Dado Ruvic
A recently launched website that tracks and lists transparency reports from across the web has already received over 20 submissions since its launch on Monday, co-founder Nadia Kayyali told the Sputnik international news service.

Kayyali, who is also an activist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said that EFF became involved in the project because they thought it was important to provide information to people about what companies have so-called ‘canaries.’

A ‘canary’ is a published statement or warrant that ISPs and telecom providers put out to say they haven’t received any security data requests from Federal government.

Its disappearance normally means they’ve received secret orders from an intelligence or law enforcement agency, usually the NSA or the FBI.

READ MORE: New document reveals FBI’s role in NSA surveillance program

In many cases data requests from the government agencies come together with gagging orders that prohibit the companies to disclose receiving the information request. But they are not legally prohibited from saying that they haven't received them.

This loophole allows Canary Watch to monitor postings on social networks such as Reddit, Pinterest and Tumblr that like to be perceived as transparent, and they are now able to show they are. To date no US court has challenged their right to keep silent on the issue.

"Since Canary Watch launched on Monday, we’ve been sent over twenty new canaries, which we are adding to the site. The speed with which we’re getting submissions shows what kind of interest there is in canaries as a tool, and we’re really pleased to see it,” Kayyali told Sputnik on Thursday.

The EFF has teamed up with New York University’s Technology Law & Policy Clinic, the Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Calyx Institute to create CanaryWatch.org.

But not all ISPs use warrant canaries and even with the ones that do it’s hard to keep track of them.

“If you’re not paying attention to a specific canary, you may never know when it changes. Plenty of providers don’t have warrant canaries. Those that do may not make them obvious. And when warrant canaries do change, it’s not always immediately obvious what that change means,” Kayyali wrote in an EFF blog.

Canaries come in different forms and sizes so the site has an FAQ (PUT A LINK) that describes what they are and their legal implications.

READ MORE: Tech heavyweights Facebook, Google, Apple support bill limiting NSA spying

Some are just simple, short statements such as “Provider X has received 0 national security requests.” Sometimes they may be slightly more revealing such as this one from Apple in November 2013.

“Apple has never received an order under Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act. We would expect to challenge such an order if served on us.”