American libraries are signing up to help grow the Tor network as the team behind the anonymous web browsing protocol seeks to make the service both more secure and faster.
It's a move that's not out of character for libraries, which have always supported freedom of information and have often been at the forefront of civil liberties movements. But there's still a delightful bit of screwing with the system from within: Having taxpayer-funded institutions support a protocol that the Justice Department has said fosters a "zone of lawlessness" is pretty bold.
So far, just one American library is going to operate what's known as an "exit relay" or node, the parts of the network that help disguise where a connection is coming from, allowing a person to browse the internet or the dark web anonymously. There are roughly 6,000 Tor relays in operation, but only about 1,000 of them are exit nodes, which is where the traffic ultimately appears to be coming from to law enforcement who may be watching. The more exit nodes in operation, the more secure the network is (more on that in a moment).
After the Kilton Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, gets its node up and running, the Tor Project plans on expanding out to many others around the country with the help of the Library Freedom Project.
"Libraries are our most democratic public spaces, protecting our intellectual freedom, privacy, and unfettered access to information, and Tor Project creates software that allows all people to have these rights on the internet," the Tor Project wrote in a blog post. "Libraries serve a diverse audience; many of our community members are people who need Tor but don't know that it exists, and require instruction to understand and use it."
Indeed, this isn't the first time libraries have gotten involved in the Tor Project. Earlier this year, the Washington DC Public Library taught residents how to use Tor as part of a 10-day series designed to teach people about NSA mass surveillance.
It's particularly important that the Kilton Library, and presumably others, are planning on operating Tor exit nodes. As we've reported before, people who operate Tor relays, especially exit nodes, are at risk of being arrested by law enforcement, regardless of the fact that there is no law barring someone from operating one.
Because of the legal risk, relatively few people actually operate exit nodes, which are a critical part of keeping the entire network running. In fact, if one entity (such as the FBI or NSA) controls a significant percent of exit nodes, it may be able to deanonymize traffic, according to several different proof-of-concept research papers. By creating more exit nodes and putting them in the hands of libraries, the Tor Project will ultimately make its service safer to use.
"Bringing Tor exit relays into libraries would not only be a powerful symbolic gesture demonstrating our commitment to a free internet, but also a practical way to help the Tor network, and an excellent opportunity to help educate library patrons, staff, boards of trustees, and other stakeholders about the importance of Tor," the Tor Project wrote.
"As public internet service providers, libraries are shielded from some of the legal concerns that an individual exit relay operator might face, such as trying to explain to law enforcement that the traffic leaving her exit is not her own," it added. "Furthermore, libraries are protected from DMCA takedowns by safe harbor provisions. Importantly, librarians know their rights and are ready to fight back when those rights are challenged."