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US librarians defy cops, Feds – and switch on their Tor exit node

Plod FUD fails to ground pilot program

By Kieren McCarthy, 16 Sep 2015

The first library in the US to host a Tor exit node has voted to turn it back on despite warnings by the cops that it could lead to criminal behavior.

A meeting late Tuesday of the board of trustees of the Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon, New Hampshire, saw it stand by its unanimous decision to embrace the anonymizing service. The service was promptly turned back on.

In June, Kilton had agreed to be part of a pilot program called the Library Freedom Project, which aims to use spare bandwidth at the nation's public libraries to expand the Tor network, and so safeguard people's privacy online. It went live in July.

But soon after the library turned the service on, it got a visit from the cops, tipped off by Homeland Security, which warned library and city officials that the service could be used for criminal activity. They even suggested it could result in child abuse images being accessed.

After that meeting the box was turned off and the decision whether to turn it back on was moved to the next board meeting.

Tor – standing for The Onion Router – tries to make internet traffic anonymous by routing it through different nodes before it reaches its final destination. That anonymity has attracted criminal activity and as such has become a focal point for law enforcement, but it is also used by political activists and journalists who wish to avoid surveillance.

The two sides of the issue were debated at a meeting that attracted about 50 residents. The meeting was covered by local paper the Concord Monitor, which reported that chair Francis Oscadal said: "With any freedom there is risk. 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."

Danger

The meeting also saw the officials who warned about the dangers of anonymous surfing speak. Deputy police chief Phillip Roberts said he had not intended to "strong-arm" the library board. "We simply came in as law enforcement and said, 'These are the concerns'," according to the Monitor.

Deputy City Manager Paula Maville, who had also warned about the service, said it wasn't an issue of freedom of speech, but simply about making an informed decision. Residents clearly felt strongly, and a number made impassioned pleas to keep the service, referencing the importance of freedom.

Shutting the service down because of what one person might do was, in the words of a visiting library trustee from nearby Reading, like a new teacher punishing the entire class for one student's bad behavior.

The Reading library will consider adding a Tor exit relay at its library next month, she revealed.

That is great news for the woman behind the Library Freedom Project, Alison Macrina, who was also at the meeting and spoke. She used the analogy that the city should not shut down its roads just because some people drive drunk.

If Tor shut down, criminals would find other ways to carry out their activities, she argued, but those seeking privacy online would not. She said she hoped the decision would lead to more libraries deciding to host Tor relays. ®

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