The Tor Project recently started a program to help libraries install Tor relays as a way to protect the privacy of patrons and other Internet users. The program didn’t get too far, however, as the first library to install a relay had to turn it off after town police officials were contacted by Department of Homeland Security agents.
Tor is used in a variety of contexts and by many types of people. It’s often used by dissidents, activists, journalists, and others who need to protect their privacy and anonymity. The system also is used by criminals, who prize it for the same reasons that other users do, something that has attracted the attention of law enforcement agencies.
Law enforcement in the United States recently have had some success going after individuals and criminal organizations who used Tor. In 2014 the FBI and other agencies took down a long list of Tor hidden services, including the infamous Silk Road 2.0 site. How that operation succeeded isn’t clear, but law enforcement agencies continue to worry about the way that criminals and attackers may employ Tor.
So after a library in Lebanon, N.H., installed a Tor relay over the summer, it came to the attention of investigators at DHS, who then got in touch with officials in the town. Police and town officials met to discuss the ways that Tor is used and eventually decided to turn the relay off for the time being.
“Right now we’re on pause,” Sean Fleming, library director in Lebanon, told Pro Publica. “We really weren’t anticipating that there would be any controversy at all.”
In the Tor network, a relay is one of the machines that helps route traffic anonymously through the Internet. The board of trustees for the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon plans to vote on whether to re-enable the relay on Tuesday. Officials at the EFF are encouraging users to support the use of relays in libraries.
“Libraries and Tor are a great match: Tor’s software can help provide the technological underpinnings for the privacy and intellectual freedom that libraries seek to foster, and libraries can provide the institutional support that can make long-lived high-bandwidth nodes possible,” Preker Higgins of EFF wrote in a blog post.