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What is a warrant canary and why should you care?

Dominik

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What is a warrant canary

A warrant canary is the first – and often only – line of defense against covert government surveillance targeting unsuspecting individuals and entities on the Internet. It’s a clever concept that allows online companies like VPN providers and social media to partially circumvent gag orders and similarly secretive user data requests. 

For example, while there’s essentially no way the U.S. government will ever give up on its precious gag orders and we’re largely powerless to stop them, warrant canaries provide us with a rare glimpse into that world of shady government dealings. Meaning while your VPN provider may be legally prevented from notifying you about secretive customer information requests from the authorities, it’s fully within its rights to publicize a lack thereof as loudly as it can.

That’s pretty much the gist of what constitutes a warrant canary. The curious name of this privacy-friendly online protection principle originates from actual birds and their impressive contributions to the British mining industry – a crazy story if we’ve ever heard one, but one that doesn’t warrant a digression while explaining modern-day Internet canaries.

In practical terms, a company that subscribes to the said principle will make it a point to regularly notify users about things going just fine. The frequency of these “we-haven’t-been-strong-armed-to-sell-you-out-as-of-right-now” updates varies, but in the context of the virtual private network market, you generally want at least one update a month from your provider.

Luckily, that shouldn’t be an issue as even niche players are capable of maintaining warrant canaries that get refreshed on a monthly basis. See BolehVPN for a decent illustration of how inexpensive it is to attach a warrant canary not just to an anonymization service but pretty much any digital business imaginable.

Though it’s easy to stumble upon more laid-back warrant canary implementations while searching for a VPN, a good rule of thumb is to view those as red flags instead of selling points.

If your VPN provider can’t be bothered to revise its warrant canary more frequently than once per quarter, it might as well not bother. That’s because the very nature of the concept limits its potential utility to pretty much one single thing – indirectly revealing whether your VPN provider or some other company of interest was potentially compromised by authorities. As you can surely imagine, relying on a severely outdated warrant canary can easily be worse than not even attempting to inform yourself, especially in the VPN space.

If all this talk still sounds like convoluted gibberish to you, let’s stop talking about worst-case scenarios and instead look at their exact opposites; an ideal warrant canary is one that always has up-to-date information so as to alleviate your concerns as often as required. E.g. NordVPN’s warrant canary is updated daily, which should allow even the most paranoid of users to rest easy for a few moments.

If you count yourself among that crowd, the day you check NordVPN’s warrant canary and indirectly deduce the company was hit with a gag order, search warrant, or one of those infamous “national security” letters… well, that’s the day you should cancel your subscription and start looking for a replacement.

When dealing with the subject of digital privacy and cybersecurity – paranoia isn’t just desirable – it’s borderline mandatory. That’s why warrant canaries have been steadily gaining traction ever since Capitol Hill leveraged 9/11 attacks to pass the blatantly unconstitutional Patriot Act – which remains in force to date, expanded and improved with more privacy-violating abuses of power than ever before.

Nothing drives that point home as warrant canaries, netizens’ last-ditch attempts at holding on to some semblance of digital privacy. It’s simple: when the list of countries that aren’t publicly enamored by the prospect of warrantless mass surveillance can fit on a napkin, you take all the help you can get. And what you can get from a proper warrant canary implementation is a surefire way to know whether there’s reason to believe your VPN has been compromised or not, i.e. if you should continue trusting it.

It’s a barebones concept, but that’s all there is for businesses valuing transparency over being complicit in unlawful citizen surveillance. A VPN with a no-logging policy and daily warrant canary refreshes is hence the ultimate combo in this industry, adding to the already lengthy record of factors you should consider while shopping for a new virtual private network.


Editor’s Note

What is a Warrant Canary” was written by Dominik Bosnjak, a long-time VPN-user-turned-advocate who spends more time scrutinizing VPN Providers on a daily basis than he’d like to admit. When he isn’t writing VPN Guides and covering general Tech News, he’s probably spending time with his dog, video games, or both. Fun fact: the Shih Tzu in question is the only remaining creature in Dominik’s life who hasn’t told him they’re sick of him talking about Best VPN practices and government-sponsored erosion of digital privacy which made using the Internet less convenient over the years. He occasionally dabbles in video editing, Wall Street memes, and demonstrating a remarkable lack of guitar-playing ability.

If you want more tidbit-sized rants about any of those things, you can find him on Twitter @dddominikk.

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