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Silicon Valley's Congresswoman comes to the defense of Tor

Lofgren asks pointed questions of Homeland Security

By Kieren McCarthy, 11 Dec 2015

Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, who represents a big slice of Silicon Valley, has gone to bat for the anonymizing Tor service.

In a letter [PDF] sent this week to the head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Lofgren has asked some pointed questions about the role that the DHS played in a recent high-profile case where a network node was taken down following police involvement.

Lofgren wants to know if the DHS has an anti-Tor policy and if so, why. And she wants to know if there are other examples of the DHS flexing its muscles to limit the rollout of the service.

The small Kilton library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, was the center of that unexpected battle when its decision to offer an exit node for the Tor network led to the cops requesting an audience with the library's director and a number of city council officials. In that meeting they were warned that the node would assist child abusers, drug dealers, and terrorists.

The node was shut down immediately after the meeting, but following a counter-campaign and a meeting of the library's Board of Directors, it was turned back on.

What concerns Lofgren is the influence of the DHS in the saga, which was revealed following a freedom of information request. It turned out that it was a special agent of the DHS, Gregory Squire, who set the ball rolling.

Enter the cops

Squire noticed the reference to the Tor relay in a newspaper article and emailed a colleague complaining about it. The person who received the email, the commander of New Hampshire's Internet Crime Against Children Task Force, Thomas Grella, then contacted Sergeant Richard Norris at the Lebanon local police station. He and a colleague contacted and met with the library's IT director, Sean Fleming, and a number of unnamed city officials.

At that meeting it warned them that "the anonymity of the service would make it very difficult to track people engaged in criminal activity, such as child pornography, drug transactions, and terrorism."

"I request that the agency provide answers to the following questions," Lofgren asks in her letter:

  • Was this interference with the Kilton Public Library's offering of privacy protection services the result of a DHS policy to persuade public or private entities from offering such services, or was this the result of an agent acting independently without authorization?
  • If this was the result of an agent acting independently, what steps is DHS taking to ensure that in the future agents do not interfere with privacy protection services being offered to the public?
  • Are there other instances where a DHS employee has been involved in pressuring or persuading other public or private entities to either stop offering privacy or anonymity services or to reduce the effectiveness of those services?

The Tor network and its ability to provide almost anonymous browsing has become a lightning rod for concerns over privacy and security online.

As Lofgren points out in her letter: "The Tor network is a product of research performed at the United States Naval Research Laboratory and DARPA, and is used by journalists, activists, dissidents, intelligence sources, and other privacy-concerned individuals to keep their web browsing activity private. The current version of the network still receives significant funding through government grants."

It may seem perverse that a US-government funded service used by US government employees and people whose activities align closely with US government goals, is the target of law enforcement efforts to limit or close it down.

The reality, however, is that while the service is used by "good" people, it is also used extensively by criminals to cover their traces and to set up websites on the "dark net" that sell illicit items. As a result, the Tor network has a very poor reputation in law enforcement's eyes.

While it seems extremely unlikely that the DHS has a formal policy about the Tor network, Lofgren's intent is no doubt to start the department down a path of developing one, which in itself should be helpful in instilling a more nuanced view of the technology in the eyes of the cops.

New ED

In related news, the Tor network announced Friday that it has a new executive director. Shari Steele was legal director and then executive director of the Electronic Freedom Frontier (EFF) for 15 years before leaving this year. She is credited with making the EFF a serious force in internet policy circles, and her move to Tor probably couldn't come at a better time. ®

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