A library in New Hampshire caught the attention of the Department of Homeland Security recently after joining a project aimed at protecting the privacy of Internet users across the globe.
As reported by Propublica’s Julia Angwin, the incident began last July after the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, became the first in the country to set up a Tor relay under the Library Freedom Project. This allows users of the Tor browser to hide their true location, and if used correctly their identity as well, by having their Internet traffic routed through random relays all over the world.
“This is an idea whose time has come; libraries are our most democratic public spaces, protecting our intellectual freedom, privacy, and unfettered access to information, and Tor Project creates software that allows all people to have these rights on the internet,” the project’s website states.
Law enforcement in New Hampshire, who learned of the library’s involvement from a DHS special agent in Boston who read news articles on the project, reached out to Lebanon Public Libraries Director Sean Fleming shortly after the relay began operating.
“The Department of Homeland Security got in touch with our Police Department,” Fleming told Propublica.
Taken back by the reaction from the city, the library chose to shut down the relay after “local police and city officials discussed how Tor could be exploited by criminals.”
“Right now we’re on pause,” Fleming said. “We really weren’t anticipating that there would be any controversy at all.”
Despite Tor relays being completely legal and the Tor network itself being regularly utilized by whistleblowers, journalists and the privacy-conscious, many law enforcement agencies continue to express disdain over the technology’s strong encryption.
A top secret National Security Agency document revealed by Edward Snowden in 2013 entitled “Tor stinks” even stated “We will never be able to de-anonymize all Tor users all the time.”
“The use of a Tor browser is not, in [or] of itself, illegal and there are legitimate purposes for its use,” DHS spokesman Shawn Neudauer told Angwin. “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.”
According to Fleming, the library board of trustees will meet again on Sept. 15 to decide the fate of the relay.