Modern field guide to security and privacy

Law enforcement e-mails highlight entrenched camps in Tor debate

A New Hampshire library's experiment to support the Tor browser initially alarmed an official within the state's Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. 

Joe Uchill/The Christian Science Monitor
Protesters outside the Lebanon Public Library gathered to show support for running a Tor relay at the New Hampshire library.

At a public hearing last week, city officials in Lebanon, N.H., voted to restart a server in their public library that is part of the Tor anonymous Web browser. The decisions came in response to a flood of support from privacy advocates and civil libertarians after officials temporarily shut that server down.

E-mails obtained by the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union and shared with Passcode highlight the entrenched camps in the debate: law enforcement, who often deal with the worst-case scenarios of anonymity technology – such as child pornography – and privacy advocates, who encounter some of its best uses – political freedom and avoiding surveillance. 

The Lebanon Tor relay (which helps expand the Tor network) is the first in a partnership between Tor and the Library Freedom Project, which encourages public libraries to provide their users with access to privacy software. When Ars Technica announced the relay’s launch in late July, it caught the attention of a special agent at the Boston field office of Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) – a component of Immigration and Customs Enforcement that investigates, among other things, online child pornography.

“Just terrific ... that kid seems to be thinking just an inch past the end of her nose,” HSI Special Agent Gregory Squire wrote (including the ellipses) in an e-mail to Det. Sgt. Tom Grella of the Portsmouth, N.H., Police Department. Sergeant Grella heads up the state’s Internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force. The e-mail also included a link to the Ars Technica article.

The Portsmouth officer forwarded HSI’s e-mail to an officer in Lebanon, saying only, “This could be a problem.” That officer then contacted another police officer and requested a meeting with local library officials, according to a Sept. 11 memo.

"The tone of these e-mails betrays the fact that DHS and ICAC don't take the work of community activists like Library Freedom Project seriously," said Alison Macrina, founder of the Library Freedom Project. "However, given the outcome of this incident, they should probably rethink that approach."

Agents in Boston’s HSI office work with images of child sex abuse to track down victims and perpetrators, according to a 2012 Boston Globe profile. The anonymity and encryption provided by Tor can make that task more difficult by obscuring child pornographers’ online addresses and physical locations.

Tor allows anonymous, encrypted Web browsing by bouncing users' Web traffic among multiple servers to obfuscate identifiable information. It's become a popular tool among journalists and dissidents in countries where online surveillance is especially common and protest activities can lead to jail time. But because the browser is easy to use and download, Tor is also used to hide online criminal activity such as the trade in child pornography.

The debate at the Lebanon Public Libraries was not about installing the Tor browser on computers, but about using extra bandwidth at the Kilton Library to host a server that directs Tor traffic to other servers.

"The use of a Tor browser is not, in and of itself, illegal," a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement told Passcode in an e-mailed statement. “There are legitimate purposes for its use.… However, the protections that Tor offers can be attractive to criminal enterprises or actors, and HSI will continue to pursue those individuals who seek to use the anonymizing technology to further their illicit activity."

Meanwhile, privacy advocates remain focused on Tor’s use as a tool for freedom of expression in an age where anonymity is increasingly hard to come by. And they see last week’s show of public support for the Tor relay as validation.

“We want to show them that not only is Tor something really special and power, a really amazing tool for free expression,” Ms. Macrina said before last week’s vote. “It has an overwhelming amount of community support, and that the library has an overwhelming amount of community support.”

This article was updated after publication.

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