Twitter, Warrant Canaries, and If Mobile Tech Can Fix Democracy

Of Birdies – Warrant Canaries

We once had a very strange article in this space about the sometimes illusory promise of technology. The radio, once thought to be a tool to enable communication and foster the brotherhood of man, was quickly turned into a screeching propaganda tool by hideous totalitarians, from Mussolini to Milosevic and from Hitler to Hutu Power. Television, envisioned by its creator to be a way to educate and enlighten the public, became “a vast wasteland” (even though there is now and always has been amazing stuff on TV). Even mobile technology is thought by some curmudgeons to be nothing more than an enabler of narcissistic yakkers.

To judge any technology by its worst user though is to unfairly damn it by association. The Nazis also loved classical music; we shouldn’t therefore chuff Beethoven. With any technology there is a chance for great good. FDR used the radio to rally a nation to fight the evils of fascism and of poverty. Televised images of brave civil rights protestors stirred the conscience of a nation and helped to further the promises of the original American Revolution. Now mobile technology seems to be stepping up and using its nearly-unlimited potential to advance American democracy.

Canary in a coal mine
A good way to know if the government is spying on you, but only metaphorically. Don’t kill real canaries.
Image from

Twitter and warrant canaries

It wasn’t always this way, of course. It has been barely a year since the Edward Snowden revelations started, and with them a steady drumbeat of tech giants being implicated in government spying. That seemed to do more than stem the tide, though. Now most tech companies are forceful in pushing the government to rein in spying. Some of Silicon Valley’s most innovative companies are also equally creative in working around enforced national security constraints. Enter the era of warrant canaries.

Twitter is maybe the most innovative of these, especially when it comes to warrant canaries. This is a complicated topic, but essentially the government can force a tech company, through a warrant, to give up information about its users. While stipulating that there is a need for this at times, and that basic security is as essential to a functioning democracy as is freedom, few doubt that the NSA goes too far. The problem with a secret warrant is that a company such as Twitter can’t advise its users it has been compromised.

What they want to do, however, is tell them that they haven’t been. This is a warrant canary, so named after the birds that would die first in coal mines if there had been a gas leak, alerting miners of danger. A warrant canary is a message that says, more or less, “no warrants today!” If the message isn’t there, the canary is dead, and you know that Twitter has been compelled to give up information.

The government has pushed back against this, of course, and in a lawsuit Twitter is arguing that to force them to not use a warrant canary is essentially to be compelled to lie. This is really complicated, and for more background and a surgical dissection of the issues, you should read this excellent Just Security article by Brett Max Kaufmann, formerly of the ACLU, and now a teaching fellow and supervising attorney in the Technology Law & Policy Clinic at NYU School of Law. As he explains (emphasis his):

…the government has taken the position that Twitter is gagged by a legal settlement negotiated with distinct parties, in a lawsuit in which Twitter did not participate, concerning types of legal process that Twitter has never received. Interesting theory, to say the least—and a plainly unlawful prior restraint.

Mobile tech, advancing democracy

Democracy is about more than elections: it is about the relationship we have with the institutions we created and that exist not just to serve us, but to work with us (what Charlie Pierce calls “the great experiment in democratic self-governance”). What this means, to me, is that we aren’t alien or apart from our government, nor should it be from us. Anything that helps bridge that gap, and helps to create a stronger sense of community and togetherness, is good for democracy in its most basic form.

Mobile technology can help with this, and these types of lawsuits and pushbacks are a great start. Overzealous government activity and breaches of civil liberties enrage both the left and the right (at various times) and make it harder to get essential things done. A solid amount of citizens don’t trust the CDC to handle ebola, not due to incompetence, but to a perceived malice. This is manifestly dangerous.

If tech companies can use their vast power to pressure lawmakers to do the right thing, there can be a real change. Even more than that, other kinds of technologies change the relationship between people and power in fundamental ways. One new app helps limit police brutality by making it easier to film them. It also should be said that dashcams and mobile phones help show good cops who help the community, and protects them from frivolous lawsuits – this goes both ways, and both ways help bridge a gap. Even disincentives can eventually create real behavioral adaptations.

Outside of the United States, mobile tech has been crucial in bringing down oppressive governments, and shaking those that didn’t fall. The main element was the braveness of those standing up, but it was facilitated by the ability to communicate.

There are downsides to this. We still give up tons of information. Message boards and insane websites can help the very worst connect with each other. Security regimes can use our very tools of openness against us. One thing that will not change though is our new ability to communicate, with anyone, and to hold the powerful accountable. That’s real change, real power, and it comes with a real potential to further that radical experiment in self-governance, never perfected.

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