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Warrant Canary Has Nothing To Do With Warrants And Nothing To Do With Canaries

Warrant canary has nothing to do with warrants and nothing to do with canaries.  The phrase comes from the times in which miners used to take canaries into the mine with them to warn them of any potential gas pockets.  If the canary dies - the miners ran as it meant that gas was present (canaries are particularly vulnerable).

We now live in an age where the digital information collected by service providers on an individual is valuable.  Hardly any of us will ever appreciate the level of data that is available about us 'behind the scenes' but governments worldwide have picked up on this and they make numerous requests to service providers to secretly disclose information or access accounts so that they can harvest the data and then find out all of our little grubby secrets.

This poses a problem for a service provider.  If they are asked for the information and refuse, the government agency may go to court for a specific order.  Part of that order is that the service provider remains silent about the request and the court order.  This means that their most valuable asset (their customers) are having their confidentiality breached without their knowledge by their trusted service provider.  This does not make for great customer relationships.

Hence the warrant canary.  Imagine if you will an email provider, let us call it 'secret email'.  Their USP is that their service is anonymous, confidential, free from government interference.  Many people like the thought of remaining anonymous and not sharing their information with the government.  This does not mean they are terrorists or money launderers, perhaps they are just sick of not being able to guarantee their communications and data remain confidential.

Secret email service put up on their website or email login, a warrant canary.  This can be anything, but let us imagine it is a picture of a field with a horse in.  Each time the user logs in, they see a picture of a field and a horse.

The government then get suspicious about secret email.  They go to court and get an order that the secret email service provider has to pass over all email data and not tell their customers.

The secret email provider then changes the picture, so the horse is no longer in the field.  This is an alarm to the users, similar to the canary dying from gas.  It is a warning something has happened and the service is no longer secure from government interference.

The example above is being used right now by many providers (albeit, the horse and the field will be something completely different).  Is this however against the law?  The answer to that is actually relatively simple.  If the court order demands that the service provider does not disclose details of the order then they would be in breach of this if the horse is removed.  It is still a form of communication of the order.

It gets more complicated though when there is no court order and there is simply an approach by the government in the first instance.  If at that stage the horse went missing from the field, there is no reason why the service provider is breaking the law.  The government are most likely to make a direct approach before going to court and therefore, if you wish to remain confidential and do not like signing up to providers who offer services for free, know everything about you and your spending habits, what time you log on, where you live etc etc, then look round for a provider that guarantees your information will remain confidential and provide the added guarantee that if at anytime your data is under threat, then the horse will bolt the field.

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MLA 2017 18 Shortlisted 2