Lebanon, New Hampshire- The Lebanon Library Board of Trustees upheld their decision to continue running a Tor node at the Kilton Library at its meeting Tuesday night, and the node was turned back on shortly after the meeting. Controversy surrounding the node and the library’s support of Tor, stemming from an email sent by the Department of Homeland Security to local law enforcement, led to a temporary shutdown of the node.
The board’s decision to ultimately keep the node turned on was made after several area residents expressed their views on the importance of Tor and internet privacy and vocalized praise for the library’s Tor support.
During the board meeting, ACLU of New Hampshire executive director Devon Chaffee explained how Tor is used. The Tor browser “is a piece of software, free and open source, that helps people protect their privacy and anonymity online by obscuring personally identifiable information,” she said. Tor accomplishes this by bouncing traffic off of a network of relay nodes, which was what Kilton was asked to run.
In June, the trustees voted to allow Kilton Library to run one of these nodes. The nodes serve as an important function to allow Tor users to preserve their anonymity. The Kilton Library, with the help of the Library Freedom Project (LFP), became the first public library in the United States to offer a relay node.
Kilton’s running of the node was part of a larger initiative to encourage libraries nationwide to support Tor and relay nodes as a “powerful symbolic gesture demonstrating our commitment to a free internet, but also a practical way to help the Tor network, and an excellent opportunity to help educate our patrons, staff, boards of trustees, and other stakeholders about the importance of Tor.”
Kilton Library was chosen partly because of steps that the library had already made to protect patron privacy. According to LFP, Kilton IT librarian Chuck McAndrew runs the library computers on GNU/Linux distributions. “Most library environments run Microsoft Windows, and we know that Microsoft participated in the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program. By choosing GNU/Linux operating systems and installing some privacy-protecting browser extensions too, Chuck’s helping his staff and patrons opt-out of pervasive government and corporate surveillance.”
Just over a month passed before an agent at the Department of Homeland Security in Boston discovered Kilton Library’s support of Tor. DHS notified the Lebanon Police Department of the project, and a meeting between city officials, the board of library trustees and law enforcement was held to discuss the risks of running a node.
Law enforcement and Lebanon Deputy City Manager Paula Maville made comments regarding the possibility of criminal exploitation of Tor. The library decided to pause the pilot project and hold another meeting to decide whether or not to turn it back on or keep it off.
Ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, a rally was held outside of Lebanon Public Library where activists held signs cheering Kilton’s support of Tor while rebuking DHS’s involvement. Lynette Johnson, a former librarian, told Truth In Media’s Annabelle Bamforth at the rally that “librarians really think about [protecting patron privacy] almost like a doctor-patient confidentiality.”
Public comment consisted almost entirely of support for Kilton Library’s relay node. The first person to speak, an elderly man named Lloyd, said that he worked for the government in the past and urged that DHS be kept as far away from Tor as possible.
Another man, a resident of Orange, New Hampshire who identified himself as an employee in the information technology field for several years, pointed out that U.S. intelligence agencies have more tools than ever before to gather information and opined that the debate should not be around whether or not the government has a harder time catching criminals, but around whether or not a relay node is a proper library function.
A woman born in Colombia spoke up passionately in support of privacy and freedom of speech, describing her previous job as a social worker in Colombia amidst violent conflict and explaining that she had seen many atrocities. “Freedom of speech isn’t part of their democracy there,” she said.
One after another, area residents shared their thoughts on the importance of internet privacy and why tools such as Tor should be embraced and not subjected to blind fear.
Following public comment, the board acknowledged that Tor could be exploited by criminal operations, but not any more than other online tools. The board made a decision to turn the node back on and maintain their original vote to support Tor by hosting the node.
Following the decision, Bamforth interviewed LFP’s Alison Macrina and Tor Project’s Nima Fatemi- who helped introduce the node to Kilton Library and have provided education about online privacy tools- about the library’s decision.
“We’re absolutely thrilled,” Macrina said following the meeting. “This is a public referendum about privacy and free speech, and I couldn’t think of a better place to have it happen. There was a reason why we chose Kilton as our pilot project. We knew that New Hampshire, the Live Free Or Die state, was the right place for this. This is the best thing that could have happened. The whole world came out in favor of Kilton doing the right thing, which they’ve just done, and it’s no better demonstrated than by the response of the community which was just overwhelming- I was crying, especially when the woman from Colombia spoke.”
“We actually made a joke, Libe Free or Die,” added Fatemi, a Tor Project member and partner in the LFP’s relay node project. “We’re definitely overwhelmed by the support of the community. It’s unbelievable, I was basically speechless.”
Fatemi noted that “what happened with the police department and DHS was a huge case of miseducation. Part of the reason we picked libraries because libraries are central to the communities. If we help give them enough resources, then they can teach, educate the communities around them- including law enforcement.”
This article has been updated to properly identify that a relay node is running at Kilton, not an exit relay.