"More than machinery, we need humanity."

TOR, Libraries, and DHS: fuck that noise

Our dear comrade Alison Macrina at the Library Freedom Project had the fabulous idea to set up Tor relays in public libraries — after all, providing services and assuring patron privacy are at the core of what public libraries do (see: ALA’s Code of Ethics and Bill of Rights).

The Kilton Library in Lebanon, NH, was the pilot project for this new effort; they set up their relay in July with unanimous support from their board of trustees. Then the local police, at the urging of the Department of Homeland Security, called them up. Julia Angwin, author of Dragnet nation (reviewed here previously) wrote for ProPublica:

DHS spokesman Shawn Neudauer said the agent was simply providing “visibility/situational awareness,” and did not have any direct contact with the Lebanon police or library. “The use of a Tor browser is not, in [or] of itself, illegal and there are legitimate purposes for its use,” Neudauer said, “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.”

When the DHS inquiry was brought to his attention, Lt. Matthew Isham of the Lebanon Police Department was concerned. “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,” Isham said. “We felt we needed to make the city aware of it.”

This is not a far cry from the reasoning behind previous attempts to invade library patron privacy by law enforcement. You may recall the Connecticut Four from a decade ago, who under the PATRIOT Act received National Security Letters & their attendant gag orders. The government’s argument is basically the same — that librarians can not protect records created in the course of use of the library because there might be criminality concealed within. Before that, in the 1980s the FBI had the Library Awareness Program.

The Kilton Library has turned of its Tor relay at least until a board of trustees meeting on September 15. We here at the Shipwreck of course urge them to not give into government pressure and fear mongering, and instead stand firm for the rights and privacy of their library patrons, and of internet users worldwide, who will be served by their Tor relay.

In the meantime, what can you do? Spread the word — write on whatever platforms you have access to, talk to your colleagues & friends. If you work at a library, especially a large one with money and institutional support, consider setting up a relay there. And you can sign the EFF’s support petition.

About oneofthelibrarians

Respectable mid-career librarian by day, dirty street librarian by night & other days.

2 comments on “TOR, Libraries, and DHS: fuck that noise

  1. TheLuddbrarian
    September 13, 2015

    This is certainly a worrisome development, and librarians (as well as those who care about libraries) should rally to the defense of the Kilton Library.

    That being said, it is important not to turn this into an occasion to fetishize Tor. While The Onion Router (Tor) is a useful tool much beloved by many activists, a library’s commitment to defending the privacy of its patrons’ information goes beyond any single tool or platform. We can (and should) bridle at the actions taken against the Kilton Library and support that library turning their Tor relay back on while still recognizing that Tor is not a panacea that will magically solve all of our privacy problems.

    It is important, especially when we talk about privacy technologies in libraries, that we emphasize the library over the tool, lest the library commitment to privacy become little more than a mumbled pledge of allegiance to a particular piece of technology. Supporting the Kilton Library does not mean swearing fealty to Tor. Otherwise what may occur is that libraries are not using Tor, but that Tor is using libraries.

  2. jonathanrodrguez
    October 20, 2015

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Ne'er do wells



Creative Commons License


%d bloggers like this: