The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is pressuring a small town library to stop using a popular secure Internet browser.
DHS asked local police and city officials to tell the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, to stop making Tor or the Onion Router available to its patrons.
Tor is a special browser that thwarts surveillance. Documents leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden indicated that both the National Security Agency and its British counterpart GCHQ have not been able to crack Tor, The Guardian reported.
Small Town Library Board Defies DHS and Surveillance
Shortly after the Kilton Public Library in August became the first public library in America to make a Tor connection available to its patrons, DHS contacted the Lebanon police and told them to ask city officials to turn the browser off. Librarians agreed and shut down the connection, but the Lebanon Library Board of Trustees voted unanimously on Sept. 15 to turn Tor back on, The Valley News newspaper reported. The library is a “node,” or “relay,” for Tor traffic, the newspaper said.
“With any freedom there is risk,” library board chairman Francis Oscadal said. “It came to me that I could vote in favor of the good … or I could vote against the bad. I’d rather vote for the good because there is value to this.”
Law enforcement officials and DHS wanted Tor turned off because it could be used to disseminate child pornography and information about illegal drugs, The Valley News reported. Supporters like the Tor project and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) contend that Tor enables people to exercise their Fourth Amendment Right to privacy, and that many law-abiding citizens simply want to surf the Internet in privacy – not worrying about big businesses or government snooping.
“From our perspective, the police shouldn’t be persuading libraries from doing this when Tor is funded by the State Department,” New Hampshire ACLU Director Devon Chaffee told Motherboard. The Tor Project, which makes Tor available, is partially funded by the US State Department in an effort to promote democracy overseas.
The official sponsors on Tor’s website include the US State Department, SRI International (a think tank with connections to the Pentagon), the National Science Foundation, the German Foreign Office, and Radio Free Asia (a radio service financed by the State Department).
“Tor is a really important technology that allows patrons to protect their privacy and free speech rights online,” Chaffee said. “Tor is important to human rights activists, to domestic violence victims, to reporters, all of whom use the Tor network.”
Said Tor Project spokesperson Kate Krauss, “We see librarians as defenders of free speech. We want to support this library, and future libraries, as they host Tor relays, join the Tor network, and help people around the world read whatever they want, uncensored and unspied-upon — whether those people live in Lebanon, New Hampshire or Kathmandu.”
Tor is not a commercial browser like Google or Mozilla. Instead, it is a network of exit nodes. Information bounces from node to node. It does this by randomly assigning IP addresses, which makes it hard to track people online.
Using Tor, a message that originates at the Kilton Public Library could appear to be coming from a computer in Germany.
What do you think? Is Tor a good or bad idea? Should libraries make it available? Share your thoughts in the section below: