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Did Reddit hint that the US government is spying on its users?

Users noticed that the site's 2015 government transparency report, released Thursday, removed a "warrant canary" indicating it had not received a national security letter, a secretive request for user information. 

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Graffiti art decorates a wall near the headquarters of British intelligence agency GCHQ in Cheltenham, England. The social networking forum Reddit removed a notice known as a "warrant canary" from its latest government transparency report on Thursday, suggesting that it could be the target of US government surveillance.

Eddie Keogh/Reuters/File

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The online forum Reddit may be under US government surveillance, its newest government transparency report appears to indicate.

On Thursday, the site’s users discovered that a paragraph known as a "warrant canary," which says that the site has never received a national security letter from the US government, had been removed from its annual transparency report. The letters are a controversial and highly secretive request for customer information. 

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The "warrant canary" section, named for birds kept in coal mines to warn workers if dangerous gases built up, had been present in the site's 2014 report. Its absence now suggests that Reddit may have received a surveillance request sometime last year.

Recommended:FISA 101: 10 key dates in the evolution of NSA surveillance

National security letters, which are used by the FBI to subpoena companies for information without the need for a court’s approval, are frequently accompanied by an open-ended gag order that bars companies or individuals from disclosing their contents, or even that they have received a letter.

As a result, Internet companies have frequently relied on vague "warrant canaries" to inform their users about government surveillance.

"I’ve been advised not to say anything one way or the other," Reddit CEO Steve Huffman, who uses the handle "Spez," wrote in a thread on the site discussing the report. 

"Even with the canaries, we're treading a fine line. The whole thing is icky," he added, noting that the site had recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a suit Twitter filed against the Justice Department. His comments appear to have later been deleted.

The companies are pushing for the ability to disclose the number of requests they receive from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which reviews applications for warrants to investigate foreign spies or Americans suspected of criminal activity. 

They have also been extensively lobbying the Obama administration to let them provide more information about the type and number of national security letters, or NSLs, that they receive from the government. 

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While NSLs have been in use since the 1970s, the FBI significantly stepped up the number it sent after September 11, 2001.

Twitter’s 2014 suit follows the Obama administration's decision to revamp its rules to allow Internet companies to disclose more information about the number of NSLs, that they receive. But they are still limited to revealing just the range of requests in increments of 1,000, such as between 0 and 999 requests.

The idea of the gag orders barring companies from disclosing whether they had received an NSL has also been challenged.

In 2013, a federal judge in California ruled that a gag order barring a company from disclosing a national security letter was unconstitutional, writing that the nondisclosure provision "significantly infringes on speech regarding controversial government powers."

But a higher court later vacated that decision, allowing the government to continue sending several thousand NSLs every year, Reuters reports.

Nicholas Merrill, who last year became the first person to have a gag order lifted on an NSL he had received in 2004, says that the trade-off between privacy and security has shifted too far in the government’s favor.

"The two possible outcomes are that the government spies on everyone and we're actually safer or the government spies on us and we're not safer," he told PBS’s Frontline in December 2015, in the wake of the Paris terrorist attacks. 

"We've lost some part of what makes our system great, but in the end we’ve not really gained the security we thought we would get in the trade off for the freedom that we've given up," Mr. Merrill added.


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