The Department of Homeland Security pressured a small New Hampshire library to turn off a Tor node it recently installed, according to Julia Angwin writing yesterday in ProPublica.
The middle relay for the Tor anonymity network was a pilot installed by the Library Freedom Project in mid-July as part of its project to install Tor exit nodes, which power the network, in public libraries across America.
The Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire agreed to be the first library in the nation to contribute bandwidth to the Tor network. By helping citizens access the internet with a layer of privacy not afforded to the regular web, the Tor browser supports many librarians' mission of improving access to information for everyone. But that anonymity also allows criminals to do criminal things, and, as a result, Tor exit node operators have frequently faced harassment from law enforcement.
According to ProPublica, the Boston DHS office confirmed that they warned the New Hampshire police of the server as a matter of “visibility/situational awareness.”
The founder of the Library Freedom Project, Alison Macrina, doesn’t buy that explanation.
"I don't know the actual content of what was said, but my understanding is that it was some fear-mongering thing, [Tor being] a safe harbor for child porn or whatever," she said in a Signal call.
The Lebanon library has turned off the Tor server until the board of trustees meet to discuss the issue next Tuesday, September 15.
In a public letter of support, a coalition of civil rights groups, including the ACLU, EFF, Free Software Foundation, Freedom of the Press Foundation, Tor Project, and many individual librarians has called on the Lebanon public library to switch the server back on. The EFF are also hosting an online petition.
Representatives of the Library Freedom Project, the Tor Project, and the ACLU of New Hampshire will give a presentation to the board meeting.
"We're going to show how much public support there is," Macrina said, "and hopefully quell some of the fears instilled by DHS and the local police. Truly it's--it comes down to a real lack of technical understanding, and the wrong attitude about free speech and free expression."
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, agrees. "From our perspective the police shouldn't be persuading libraries from doing this when Tor is funded by the State Department," she said in a phone call.
"Tor is a really important technology that allows patrons to protect their privacy and free speech rights online," she said. "Tor is important to human rights activists, to domestic violence victims, to reporters, all of whom use the Tor network."
The Tor Project weighed in with unequivocal support for the library. In a prepared statement, Tor Project spokesperson Kate Krauss wrote, “We see librarians as defenders of free speech. We want to support this library, and future libraries, as they host Tor relays, join the Tor network, and help people around the world read whatever they want, uncensored and unspied-upon—whether those people live in Lebanon, New Hampshire or Kathmandu.”
If this was an attempt to nip the project in the bud, Macrina believes DHS will find itself facing the Streisand Effect. Instead of discouraging other libraries from installing Tor nodes, "just as likely we could have a coalition of brave and fierce librarians who say, you know what? Maybe we didn't know about this project before, but now we see the opposition, that our rights are in jeopardy, we're going to sign on too."