First Library To Support Tor Anonymous Internet Browsing Effort Stops After DHS Email

from the can't-have-anonymity dept

Since Edward Snowden exposed the extent of online surveillance by the U.S. government, there has been a surge of initiatives to protect users’ privacy.

But it hasn’t taken long for one of these efforts ? a project to equip local libraries with technology supporting anonymous Internet surfing ? to run up against opposition from law enforcement.

In July, the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, was the first library in the country to become part of the anonymous Web surfing service Tor. The library allowed Tor users around the world to bounce their Internet traffic through the library, thus masking users’ locations.

Soon after state authorities received an email about it from an agent at the Department of Homeland Security.

“The Department of Homeland Security got in touch with our police department,” said Sean Fleming, the library director of the Lebanon Public Libraries.

After a meeting at which local police and city officials discussed how Tor could be exploited by criminals, the library pulled the plug on the project.

“Right now we’re on pause,” said Fleming. “We really weren’t anticipating that there would be any controversy at all.”

He said that the library board of trustees will vote on whether to turn the service back on at its meeting on Sept. 15.

Used in repressive regimes by dissidents and journalists, Tor is considered a crucial tool for freedom of expression and counts the State Department among its top donors. But Tor has been a thorn in the side of law enforcement; National Security Agency documents made public by Snowden have revealed the agency’s frustration that it could only identify a “very small fraction” of Tor users.

The idea to install Tor services in libraries emerged from Boston librarian Alison Macrina’s Library Freedom Project, which aims to teach libraries how to “protect patrons’ rights to explore new ideas, no matter how controversial or subversive, unfettered by the pernicious effects of online surveillance.” (The Library Freedom Project is funded by Knight Foundation, which also provides funding to ProPublica.)

After Macrina conducted a privacy training session at the Kilton library in May, she talked to the librarian about also setting up a Tor relay, the mechanism by which users across the Internet can hide their identity.

The library board of trustees unanimously approved the plan at its meeting in June, and the relay was set up in July. But after ArsTechnica wrote about the pilot project and Macrina’s plan to install Tor relays in libraries across the nation, law enforcement got involved.

A special agent in a Boston DHS office forwarded the article to the New Hampshire police, who forwarded it to a sergeant at the Lebanon Police Department.

DHS spokesman Shawn Neudauer said the agent was simply providing “visibility/situational awareness,” and did not have any direct contact with the Lebanon police or library. “The use of a Tor browser is not, in [or] of itself, illegal and there are legitimate purposes for its use,” Neudauer said, “However, the protections that Tor offers can be attractive to criminal enterprises or actors and HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] will continue to pursue those individuals who seek to use the anonymizing technology to further their illicit activity.”

When the DHS inquiry was brought to his attention, Lt. Matthew Isham of the Lebanon Police Department was concerned. “For all the good that a Tor may allow as far as speech, there is also the criminal side that would take advantage of that as well,” Isham said. “We felt we needed to make the city aware of it.”

Deputy City Manager Paula Maville said that when she learned about Tor at the meeting with the police and the librarians, she was concerned about the service’s association with criminal activities such as pornography and drug trafficking. “That is a concern from a public relations perspective and we wanted to get those concerns on the table,” she said.

Faced with police and city concerns, library director Fleming agreed to turn off the Tor relay temporarily until the board could reconsider. “We need to find out what the community thinks,” he said. “The only groups that have been represented so far are the police department and city hall.”

Fleming said that he is now realizing the downside of being the first test site for the Tor initiative.

“There are other libraries that I’ve heard that are interested in participating but nobody else wanted to be first,” he said. “We’re lonesome right now.”

Republished from ProPublica

ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for their newsletter.

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Comments on “First Library To Support Tor Anonymous Internet Browsing Effort Stops After DHS Email”

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42 Comments
Anonymous Crowad says:

“For all the good that a Tor may allow as far as speech, there is also the criminal side that would take advantage of that as well,”

For all the good that a second amendment may allow as far as self defense, there is also the criminal side that would take advantage…

His reasoning could be applied to just about anything.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re:

When all you’ve got is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Cops’ focus is on criminality so anything that isn’t criminality doesn’t concern them, including free expression and association. Mentioning them merely confuses the issue for them.

This is why concentrations of power must be watched carefully and constrained from overreach. That fireplace of yours could burn down the whole building if you let it get out of your control.

I don’t understand why we’ve allowed this lazy thinking to take control.

Anonymous Coward says:

Let see if I have the law enforcement attitude correct.
Anything that prevent them from monitoring the citizens for illegal activity is to be prevented.
Anything that allows the citizens to monitor that law officer are doing their job properly is to be prevented.
Nice to see that they are consistent, try and prevent anything that they do not like.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Random question:

The library will have surveillance cameras, and they’ll be pointed at the computers. Without TOR those computers have a traceable ip address, that can be matched to security footage of a user should anything naughty happen. With TOR, if someone does something naughty at the library, it’s no longer linked to the library – but more importantly, it’s not linked to the security footage.

Footnote, TOR or no TOR – only a goddamn fool goes to the library to do their naughty stuff.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Random question:

The library was providing a TOR exit node rather than a TOR connection for its users, and so library surveillance would be in the wrong place by up to half the circumference of the world.
Using TOR in a library is a foolish idea, as someone can see who you are while monitoring you computer us. An exit node in the library on the other hand is no more risk to a TOT user than any other exit node.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Random question:

Footnote, TOR or no TOR – only a goddamn fool goes to the library to do their naughty stuff.

Think harder. You’re overly (and unnecessarily) paranoid. Carry your laptop in and boot Tails Linux from USB key. Tor’s enabled (and even i2p if you prefer), and you sitting in a cubicle using a laptop isn’t going to be visible with the CCTV cameras libraries use.

Add to this librarians are well known for being some of the best defenders of free expression and communication out there. They generally get this stuff (though their masters/managers may not).

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Random question:

I suspect porn is not what OP AC meant by “naughty stuff”, and I doubt JWs are any worse wrt porn than anyone else. In the last city I lived in, the straights were complaining about homeless rummies surfing porn from library computers. The librarians were telling the straights to shut up, while telling the homeless to be sensible and keep it reasonable.

I’ve never understood the attraction to surf porn in public places, such as even while at work. It seems like taunting yourself with forbidden fruit on purpose. Masochism perhaps? Buy a cheap laptop and use Starbucks’ wifi, ffs.

Nastybutler77 (profile) says:

What's the difference?

“However, the protections that [a ski mask] offers can be attractive to criminal enterprises or actors and HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] will continue to pursue those individuals who seek to use the anonymizing technology to further their illicit activity.”
When the DHS inquiry was brought to his attention, Lt. Matthew Isham of the Lebanon Police Department was concerned. “For all the good that a [ski mask] may allow as far as speech, there is also the criminal side that would take advantage of that as well,” Isham said.

That makes as much sense.

Rekrul says:

When the DHS inquiry was brought to his attention, Lt. Matthew Isham of the Lebanon Police Department was concerned. “For all the good that a U.S. Post Office may allow as far as speech, there is also the criminal side that would take advantage of that as well,” Isham said. “We felt we needed to make the city aware of it.”

Deputy City Manager Paula Maville said that when she learned about the USPS at the meeting with the police and the librarians, she was concerned about the service’s association with criminal activities such as pornography and drug trafficking. “That is a concern from a public relations perspective and we wanted to get those concerns on the table,” she said.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Re: Fixed it for you

But repressive regimes do not want TOR to be in use. That is why DHS is trying to put an end to the use of TOR.

We have so many things to thank the Soviets for. Were it not for them freaking out the CIA and US’ military, we wouldn’t have tor (developed by the US Navy), or the Internet (created by DARPA), nor many crypto techs (ie. PGP). Nor would we have created NASA to put men on the moon. Of course, we need to thank the Nazis for that too (von Braun, et al). What a tangled web.

I often wonder if we were rooting for the wrong side all along. Perhaps Fidel and Che were right all along, and they were actually freedom fighters trying to free “We The People” from the fascists imposing tyranny to supplant democracy. What we see today from the overlords certainly suggests it.

I wish I could live long enough to see the real story when it’s finally released. It’ll be fascinating.

Klaus says:

Re: Re: Re: Fixed it for you

“…put men on the moon. Of course, we need to thank the Nazis…”

Sorry, completely off-topic, but I read this and I immediately thought “Iron Sky”… Thanks for that, and nice post BTW. You’re earlier point about the librarians being hard-core defenders of freedom is spot on.
.

Anonymous Coward says:

One of the things that bothers me is the presumption that there are that many criminals within the general population.

How many could there be with such a high percentage of the population already behind bars? Is the only evidence of illegal activity found online and that’s why they need access?

This perpetuates the myth of “us vs them” that exists within law enforcement as if they were at war. There is no active war zone inside the USA. The public is not their enemy.

NSA, DHS, DOJ, FBI, CIA need to rein in their imaginations and stop playing games, refocus their efforts on real enemies or they might be creating their own self fullfilling prophecy..

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: (AC @1142)

You’re thinking of the US, and your points are valid.

The internet, however, is global. Tor nodes no matter their position on the network can be accessed by anybody, even a prisoner with internet access. We’ve already seen court cases based only on an IP address. Notwithstanding DHS’ response the library has a legitimate concern about being charged with any wrongdoing based on IP tracking to their location. The US does have “accessory after the fact” charges they can use; whether or not such charges are proper or even right is another story.

Groaker (profile) says:

Then it is necessary to remove all books on mathematics from the library. The practice of math leads to cryptography.

Many innocent bystanders are killed by police. Their batons and guns must be taken away.

Many innocent people are improperly arrested and charged by the police. Their ability to arrest and charge must be reduced to finger wagging at possible criminals.

Health and safety inspectors sometimes become corrupt. That entire set of occupations must be eliminated.

There is an endless set of behaviors and actions that the authorities can declare as potentially dangerous.

Anonymous Coward says:

FBI Director James Comey said on Thursday that criminals who think they can evade law enforcement using the “dark web” and the Tor Network, which is designed to conceal the Internet addresses of the computers being used, are “kidding themselves.”

https://theintercept.com/2015/09/10/comey-asserts-tors-dark-web-longer-dark-fbi/

Law enforcement’s glorious leader James Comey recently said Tor doesn’t allow criminals to evade the long arm of the law. Why is law enforcement freaking out about public libraries using Tor?

Is law enforcement stupid or is James Comey a liar? It has to be one or the other! Well, I guess it could be both. Which is it?

Josh says:

Just another visit from our Stasi ......

Of course the federals and local “law enforcement” don’t like liberty-enhancing technology — we’ve already passed the Soviet gulag system in sheer size. No matter what you do, you’re doing something illegal. And no; I’m not joking.

It’s time for everyone to start using Tor. It’s way past time to sweep this federal pestilence from our country.

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