A small public library in New Hampshire has recently become the backdrop of a conflict brewing between internet privacy advocates and law enforcement, as city officials and police have taken aim at a project providing privacy-protecting measures to public libraries.
The Kilton Public Library, located in Lebanon, New Hampshire, became the first library in the United States to offer a relay node for Tor, an anonymous internet browsing service.
“The library allowed Tor users around the world to bounce their Internet traffic through the library, thus masking users’ locations,” according to ProPublica.
The Concord Monitor reported that Kilton Library did not offer the Tor browser, but it was “was using a portion of its infrastructure to handle traffic for Tor.”
The introduction of the Tor relay node at Kilton Library, which was announced in late July, was part of a larger initiative launched by the Library Freedom Project (LFP). LFP, based in Boston, advocates for a “privacy-centric paradigm shift in libraries” by working with librarians across the United States and providing them with information about “surveillance threats, privacy rights and responsibilities, and digital tools to stop surveillance.”
One of these digital tools is the relay node, which allows Tor users to preserve their anonymity. LFP is striving to provide relays to libraries nationwide. Currently, there are about 1,000 Tor relay nodes around the world.
LFP’s Alison Macrina visited Kilton Library in the spring and offered a privacy training session. After receiving approval from the library board, she also assisted the library in establishing a Tor relay node.
A little more than a month passed before a special agent within a Department of Homeland Security office in Boston caught wind of LFP’s progress and relayed it to New Hampshire law enforcement. The information was then given to a sergeant at the Lebanon Police Department.
According to ProPublica, DHS spokesman Shawn Neudauer said the DHS agent was offering “visibility/situational awareness” to the proper authorities.
A meeting occured soon after the DHS alert, and police and city officials discussed the possibility that Tor could be abused by criminals.
Lebanon Police Lt. Matthew Isham, expressing worry over Kilton’s new Tor service, said that “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,” and “we felt we needed to make the city aware of it.”
Lebanon Deputy City Manager Paula Maville echoed Isham’s concerns and said that Tor’s potential association with criminal operations resulted in “concern from a public relations perspective and we wanted to get those concerns on the table.”
Following the meeting, the library agreed to put Kilton’s the project on hold. “We really weren’t anticipating that there would be any controversy at all,” said Lebanon Public Libraries director Sean Fleming.
“Tor’s hidden services let users publish web sites and other services without needing to reveal the location of the site. Individuals also use Tor for socially sensitive communication: chat rooms and web forums for rape and abuse survivors, or people with illnesses. Journalists use Tor to communicate more safely with whistleblowers and dissidents. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) use Tor to allow their workers to connect to their home website while they’re in a foreign country, without notifying everybody nearby that they’re working with that organization,” explains Tor Project’s overview of the service.
The decision to pause the relay node precedes a scheduled Sept. 15 meeting, where the library board of trustees will vote on whether or not to continue the service. Local activists have organized a rally, scheduled before the meeting, to show support for Kilton Library’s staff and to call attention to the issue of internet privacy and preserving free speech online.