Warrant Canary: The FBI was not here so far, but…

Imagine a shop with a signboard, “The police was not here yet“. And suddenly, after a few weeks, the signboard is taken off. What would you deduce? That the police visited the shop? If you think so, you understand what is a Warrant Canary. Following Snowden’s revelations, we suspect that almost all ISPs and websites are providing our information to the federal government. That is true to some extent. The problem is that websites cannot directly tell you that a federal agency contacted them for information about you. If this thing leaked, it would be a federal offence that can land the website owners in jail or make them pay heavy fine. This is where Warrant Canaries step in. The post talks about details of Warrant Canaries.

Warrant Canary

Warrant Canary

Canaries are a type of birds that were used in mines, before technology for detecting methane leakages was discovered. When poisonous gas leaked in coal mines, the canaries made a flight of fear, thereby alerting the miners that something was wrong. The same system is now being used by tech companies to indicate that no part of information has been given out to federal agencies.

These Warrant Canaries take the form of messages such as “we have not been contacted by anyone for users’ personal information” and similar messages. As long as these messages exist, you can be sure that the website or the ISP is clear. As soon as the message is removed, you have to deduce that the website or the ISP contacted them for information.

Though there is freedom of speech, all of us know how it is implemented. If a website or an ISP is contacted by a federal agent for information about a user and the user is informed, the ISP or the website owner is in trouble. It is not allowed by the federal government to contact and inform users that their information has been shared with the feds. But they cannot stop websites or ISPs from displaying messages mentioned above. These messages can take any form and can be worded anyway but the essence of those messages is that they have not been asked for information about any individual using their service. Absence of such messages after a certain period of displaying them makes one understand that the federal agents have contacted the website owners or ISPs to get information about one or more users.

Why would an ISP show Warrant Canaries

Not all ISPs are interested. But the fight against forced procurement of details about users is not acceptable to many. The fight is on for months and especially after the revelation of PRISM, NSA etc. The ISPs may keep quiet if they want. But those who want to fight the system display the Warrant Canaries. The same applies to the website owners. It is purely a matter of choice and to help users understand what is going on.

How does Warrant Canary work literally

The Warrant Canaries can be displayed on the websites continuously until they are contacted by the feds for user information or they can publish a quarterly report saying they were not contacted by anyone for user information during that quarter. In the same way, ISPs too release monthly statements saying they were not contacted for user information in the last one month. They cannot tell that they were contacted by the feds. You have to deduce it yourself if you see the warrant canary absent in the monthly bill/report. It works the same way as the mine canaries flee. In case of warrant canaries, the warrant canary disappears but does not screech or cry about gas leaking.

Aren’t Warrant Canaries illegal?

So far, no court in the US has declared them illegal. Neither have they been confirmed as legal. It is just on the part of ISP or website owner that are willing to fight free speech whether or not to display the warrant canary. As such, there is no law to prevent companies from issuing warrant canaries. If such a law comes up, or if a court actually bans warrant canaries, it will set an example and will be met with a tough resistance: as tough as the resistance to net neutrality and Internet gag motion was met. I, personally, think there is no immediate fear of Warrant Canaries being banned. The government action will provoke people if it does ban Warrant Canaries.

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Arun Kumar is a Microsoft MVP alumnus, obsessed with technology, especially the Internet. He deals with the multimedia content needs of training and corporate houses. Follow him on Twitter @PowercutIN


  1. nada

    if there is no canary in the mine it is time to leave the mine to prevent any dangerous situation.
    if they is no canary at the website the dangerous situation is over …

  2. Arun Kumar

    It is the opposite actually. If there is no canary on ISP or website statements, there is a problem. 🙂

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