These Public Comments Saved a Library’s Tor Server From a Government Shutdown
Emails obtained by Motherboard show that off-the-books support from an FBI agent and dozens of supportive comments from regular people empowered a public library to keep its Tor node running.
In August, the Department of Homeland Security pressured a public library in the small town of Lebanon, New Hampshire to shut down a Tor node it was hosting on the popular anonymous browsing network. The unbridled support of dozens of citizens from both Lebanon and the entire country, including off-the-books support from an FBI computer scientist, empowered the town to turn it back on, according to emails obtained by Motherboard.
Earlier in the summer of 2015, the Kilton Public Library agreed to become the first library in the United States to host a Tor exit node, meaning it contributes bandwidth to the anonymizing web protocol (the more "nodes" there are, the faster and more secure the service is). Soon after announcing the plan, however, a DHS agent sent a one-sentence email to local police suggesting that the node would empower criminals and terrorists to evade law encircumvent. The incident brought into focus the US government's war on Tor and encryption, which are tools that are used by criminals, yes, but are much more commonly used by journalists, activists, and those in countries with authoritarian governments to communicate securely and freely. In January, 2015, an assistant attorney general with the Department of Justice called Tor a "zone of lawlessness," and the FBI, DHS, and NSA have repeatedly spoken out against the service, which was initially developed by the US government.
Faced with ever-increasing government surveillance, however, DHS's action against the Kilton library quickly went viral in privacy circles and became a symbol of Big Brother-like oversight.
According to the emails, a Philadelphia-based FBI computer scientist spoke with Lebanon officials in support of Tor
The DHS email and subsequent shutdown started a several-week-long debate among the town's government. According to emails I obtained using a New Hampshire public records request, the Kilton Library began soliciting public comment on its decision to host a node in the first place, which it then used as guidance as to whether or not it should resume hosting it.
Support for the node was overwhelming among both Lebanon residents and nonresidents: Of the 78 comments received, 76 were in favor of the library operating the node, just two were opposed. The comments came from both those who were well-versed in Tor (some of the letters came from Tor node operators themselves) and from those who had little idea what the protocol is used for but supported the idea of giving people a way to evade government surveillance.
"I grew up in the police state of South Africa during the Apartheid era, and am thoroughly disillusioned with the direction America is taking. This sort of intimidation tactic is something you would see in a totalitarian state like the one I am from, where books were banned, people's actions were monitored, and where we feared the government at every turn," wrote Carla Gericke, a Lebanon resident. "It might seem like a trivial matter, it might seem like it's easier to acquiesce to the DHS's demands, but you are a front line in the fight to retain our freedoms and our right to privacy."
Support came from as far away as California and Germany, though the vast majority of comments came from within New Hampshire and other New England states.
"I want to congratulate you folks on your far sighted support of privacy and Tor," Brian Hunt of Massachusetts wrote. "While I'm not a direct patron of your library, I wish I was."
"The Feds will absolutely have to tear that Tor server from your cold dead hands before they unplug it," Jared Higgins (location unknown) wrote. "I thank you, patriots and saints at Lebanon Libraries, for fighting the good fight for freedom of speech."
The comments go on and on like this (they are all embedded below), and the sentiment is almost uniformly the same. The comments seemed to have a real impact on the library's decision to restart the node. Sean Fleming, director of Lebanon Public Libraries, noted in an email to various stakeholders that they would "likely note the preponderance of comments in favor of turning the relay back on." It's worth noting that Fleming and library officials strongly supported keeping the node turned on in various emails to law enforcement and other city government officials.
Devon Chaffee, executive director of the American Civil Liberty Union of New Hampshire, told me that the comments should serve as a clear rebuff of the federal government's tendency to push for pervasive surveillance of all internet communications.
"What perhaps is most striking about the documents is the outpouring of support—both locally and nationally—that the Lebanon Library received over its decision to host the Tor relay," she said. "It's clear from the comments that many folks living in Lebanon and around the country have a clear understanding of why technology that protects online privacy is so important."
Earlier this fall, court documents showed that the FBI orchestrated the largest known attack on the Tor protocol's anonymity, which makes one other piece of this story highly interesting: According to the emails, a Philadelphia-based FBI computer scientist named Russell Handorf spoke with Lebanon officials in support of Tor. The call was set up by the Library Freedom Project's Alison Macrina, who helped the Kilton library set up the node in the first place. Handorf was not acting on behalf of the FBI, but his help suggests that not everyone at the agency believes Tor is a huge threat to law enforcement.
"There are certainly people within the FBI who understand the value of Tor"
"We are in touch with an FBI agent who is a huge Tor advocate and may be able to help quell the fears of the Lebanon PD and city manager," Macrina wrote in an email to Chuck McAndrew, an official with the Kilton library. "He can provide meaningful data about how rare the child porn and terrorism stuff actually is, and a valuable perspective as a law enforcement agent who actually understands and uses Tor."
Chuck McAndrew confirmed to me that he did speak with Handorf, and that the conversation was helpful:
"I would characterize his comments (from what I remember) as positive towards Tor. He made it clear that he was speaking as himself rather than as a representative of the FBI so I can't say that the FBI was supportive or not supportive," McAndrew wrote to me in an email. "However, there are certainly people within the FBI who understand the value of Tor. We also had a cyber crimes investigator from Tacoma (I don't recall his name) reach out to us. He was very supportive and told us that his department actually teaches the use of the Tor Browser to domestic abuse victims."
Handorf would not speak to me on the record and referred me to an FBI public information officer for comment. The public information officer did not respond to my request.
Some combination of the public comments, support from the privacy community, and McAndrew's conversation with Handorf resulted in the Lebanon Library Board of Trustees unanimously voting in late September to re-enable the node. Earlier this month, Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren demanded that the DHS explain why it asked the library to shut down the node in the first place. And a dozen libraries around the country have told Macrina they're interested in hosting nodes themselves.
Chaffee said that the incident shows that when the government overextends itself like this, ordinary people aren't afraid to speak out.
"It remains concerning that law enforcement pressured a local library into withdrawing its support for a critical online privacy technology funded by the US State Department," she said. "This incident should serve as a teachable moment not only for those involved, but also for federal and local law enforcement agencies around the country."