One of the most irritating innovations of the Post-911 Era is the National Security Letter.
Unlike a warrant, a National Security Letter does not need to be approved by a court of law and it compels the recipient organization to hand over confidential information about its membership.
Best of all, a recipient is legally barred from mentioning that they have received a National Security Letter.
An NSL confers a great deal of power on the wielder, and thoroughly disempowers the recipient. As a result, it shouldn’t be surprising that the FBI has been handing out NSLs as though they were the world’s most depressing Valentines. Now, they’ve got to Reddit.
Or have they? Because it appears that Reddit has raised two magnificent middle fingers to the government’s busybodies.
See, an organization can’t disclose the existence of an NSL before they get it. It is entirely legal for them to say that they haven’t gotten one, however, using what’s known as a “warrant canary.” Back in 2014, Reddit released a transparency report with a section containing the following:
As of January 29, 2015, reddit has never received a National Security Letter, an order under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, or any other classified request for user information.
However, in this year’s most recent report that section is gone.
For most organizations, having a warrant canary is like having a gun that can only fire once. Not super helpful, in other words. Reddit, however, has innovated on the concept of a warrant canary in a way that flouts the government even more thoroughly. One of Reddit’s most inoffensive features is the “Ask Me Anything,” or AMA, and the AMA featured on April 4th just happened to feature several lawyers from the ACLU.
Although the lawyers couldn’t say anything specific about Reddit’s case, they did happen to reveal some fascinating facts about NSLs in general. For example, the FBI issued nearly two hundred thousand NSLs over a three-year period. Also, the penalty for evading an NSL is still unknown. As in, it could be a five-year prison sentence, or… Gitmo. Forever.
So, just to wrap up, NSLs have nearly limitless power, are issued by an unaccountable government agency, and no one really knows what happens if you try to break one. Great. Hopefully the actions of Reddit will inspire more organizations to resist these invasions of privacy, but in the meantime, I’m going to console myself by drinking. Heavily.
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