Reddit Change Sparks Concerns About US Government Spying

Reddit Change Sparks Concerns About US Government Spying

Digital privacy advocates and users of Reddit expressed their alarm on Friday over a change in the forum’s transparency report that suggested it may have been asked to give customer data to FBI investigators under a secretive government authority.

The annual report lists a variety of requests the site has received for information on users and for removal of content. On Thursday, Reddit deleted a paragraph known as a “warrant canary.”

The paragraph had said that Reddit had not been subject to national security letters, which are used by the FBI to conduct electronic surveillance without the need for court approval, or “any other classified request for user information.”

Privacy advocates have long contested the letters, saying they are not subject to sufficient judicial oversight or transparency safeguards.

Brett Max Kaufman, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union, said on Friday that authorities were possibly seeking the IP address, or an identifying number that corresponds to a specific computer, of an anonymous user on Reddit. Private messages between users could also be subject to search.

Reddit collects relatively little customer data that could be subject to a national security letter and useful for investigators, Kaufman said. Reddit does not require users to reveal their identities and stores less customer data overall compared to email or other social media such as Facebook, he said.

Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who gave classified documents about US spying to journalists in 2013, expressed concern on Twitter.

“Is dissent a threat to national security?” tweeted Snowden (@Snowden), whose leaks prompted a vigorous international debate about digital privacy and surveillance.

The leaks helped popularize the use of “warrant canaries” by tech firms eager to display resistance to government attempts to obtain access to user data.

“When you ask someone ‘Are you helping authorities in investigations?’ and they say ‘I’m not allowed to discuss that with you,’ I think the question has been answered,” wrote Reddit user khegiobridge.

National security letters are almost always accompanied by an open-ended gag order barring companies from disclosing the contents of the demand for customer data, making it difficult for firms to openly discuss how they handle the subpoenas.

That has led many companies to rely on somewhat vague warnings. Apple previously had a “warrant canary” but removed it in 2014.

“I’ve been advised not to say anything one way or the other,” Reddit Chief Executive Officer Steve Huffman, who goes by “spez” on the site, said in a thread discussing the change. “Even with the canaries, we’re treading a fine line.”

The FBI can use national security letters to compel Internet and telecommunications firms to hand over a wide range of customer data, including web browsing history and records of online purchases.

San Francisco-based Reddit did not respond to a request for comment. The Federal Bureau of Investigation did not respond to a request for comment.

National security letters have been available as a law enforcement tool since the 1970s, but their frequency and breadth expanded dramatically under the USA Patriot Act, which was passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by Islamist militants.

Several thousand of the letters are now issued by the FBI every year. At one point more than 50,000 such letters were issued annually.

In 2014, Twitter sued the US Department of Justice on grounds that the restrictions placed on its ability to reveal information about government surveillance orders violates free speech rights. Reddit and others have filed friend of the court briefs in Twitter’s lawsuit.

© Thomson Reuters 2016

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Tags: Internet, Reddit, Warrant canary
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UK’s Contentious Online Spying Law Passes Test in Parliament

UK's Contentious Online Spying Law Passes Test in Parliament

A proposed British law that gives police and spies unprecedented powers to look at the Internet browsing records of everyone in the country passed its first major vote in Parliament on Tuesday.

The country’s interior minister, Home Secretary Theresa May, vowed its intrusive reach would be governed by “the strongest safeguards” against abuse. Opening a House of Commons debate on the contentious bill, May said the law would provide “unparalleled openness and transparency” about the authorities’ surveillance powers.

The Investigatory Powers Bill gives law enforcement officials broad powers to obtain Internet connection records – a list of websites, apps and messaging services someone has visited, though not the individual pages they looked at or the messages they sent. It also requires telecommunications companies to keep records of customers’ Web histories for up to a year and to help security services gain access to suspects’ electronic devices.

The bill also makes official – and legal, with some restraints – the intelligence agencies’ existing ability to harvest vast amounts of bulk online data. The existence of the secretive collection schemes was exposed by US National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

May said that criminals and terrorists are exploiting technology to the hilt, and “we must ensure that those charged with keeping us safe are able to keep pace.”

May wants the bill to become law by year’s end. But it is strongly opposed by civil liberties groups, who say it grants spy agencies powers that are far too sweeping.

In a letter published Tuesday in the Guardian newspaper, more than 200 senior lawyers and law professors said the bill “compromises the essence of the fundamental right to privacy and may be illegal.” They said it would likely be subject to lengthy and expensive legal challenges.

Internet companies including Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft, Twitter and Yahoo have also raised concerns, saying the measures could weaken encryption, which is key to ensuring online shopping and other activities can be conducted securely.

The Internet Service Providers’ Association said its members found the bill complicated and difficult to understand and believed its estimates of what it would cost to implement were “entirely unrealistic.”

Despite the criticism, the bill passed its first parliamentary vote 281-15, and will go to a committee for scrutiny. The opposition Labour Party and Scottish National Party abstained, saying the legislation should be amended before becoming law.

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Tags: Apple, Edward Snowden, Facebook, Google, Internet, Microsoft, Spying, Twitter, UK, Yahoo
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