A Congresswoman from California is questioning Department of Homeland Security officials who put pressure on a local public library to take down the relay node it had set up for the anonymity network Tor.
You may recall back in September, when the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire briefly disabled its Tor relay after meeting with local police, who had received a tip from agents with Homeland Security's investigations branch warning that the network can be used by criminals. Relay nodes act as the middle points of the Tor network, whose layers of encryption allow activists, journalists, human rights workers, and average citizens (and, yes, criminals) to access the Internet anonymously. The more nodes, the faster the network becomes.
The fearmongering backfired spectacularly: the Lebanon library unanimously voted to restore its Tor relay and announced plans to convert it into a Tor exit node, one of the essential gateways which provides the last "hop" allowing Tor users to anonymously connect to Internet sites and services. More than a dozen other libraries around the U.S. also piled on, declaring their intention to run Tor nodes of their own in defiance.
Now Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren is asking just what the hell compelled the DHS to intervene.
"While the Kilton Public Library's board ultimately voted to restore their Tor relay, I am no less disturbed by the possibility that DHS employers are pressuring or persuading public and private entities to discontinue or degrade services that protect the privacy and anonymity of US citizens," Lofgren wrote in a letter addressed to DHS chief Jeh Johnson.
She goes on to pose several questions about the incident, including whether the intervention was the result of official DHS policy or a lone actor and whether the agency has similarly pressured anyone to stop providing privacy services in the past. Lofgren also asks the agency to provide "copies of any DHS policy, guidance, or memo that discusses either deterring or supporting the use of privacy protection services by public entities, private entities, or individuals."
The letter assigns no due date, so there's no telling when Lofgren will get her answers. But given that Tor was originally a US government project (and still receives some federal funding) it's probably in DHS' best interest to respond.
The DHS isn't the only US agency discouraging the use of privacy tools lately. Earlier this week, FBI director James Comey suggested that companies like Apple and WhatsApp offering end-to-end encryption be forced to change their business model, so that they'll be able to hand over unencrypted communications when the feds come knocking.
So far, these efforts to pressure people into not offering strong encryption and privacy services haven't really had teeth – but there's no doubt US law enforcement and intelligence agencies will keep trying.