Friday, September 19, 2014

Apple’s “warrant canary” disappears, suggesting new Patriot Act demands


by Jeff John Roberts
photo: Wikipedia
bySUMMARY:Apple included language in its first Transparency Report to say that it had not been subject to a Section 215 Patriot Act request. That language is now gone.

When Apple published its first Transparency Report on government activity in late 2013, the document contained an important footnote that stated:

“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.”

Writer and cyber-activist Cory Doctorow at the time recognized that language as a so-called “warrant canary,” which Apple was using to thwart the secrecy imposed by the Patriot Act.

Warrant canaries are a tool used by companies and publishers to signify to their users that, so far, they have not been subject to a given type of law enforcement request such as a secret subpoena. If the canary disappears, then it is likely the situation has changed — and the company has been subject to such request.

Now, Apple’s warrant canary has disappeared. A review of the company’s last two Transparency Reports, covering the second half of 2013 and the first six months of 2014, shows that the “canary” language is no longer there.

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.

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 battlingto 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″).

The disappearance of Apple’s warrant canary thus suggests that the company too is affected by FISA proceedings.