Every day, to protect their anonymity online, hundreds of thousands of people use the Tor network, a collection of servers run mostly by volunteers. These volunteers, known as the "operators," risk jail or at least an unpleasant encounter with the law if the people who use the Tor network are up to no good.
The operators run what's known as an "exit node," the final point out of the Tor network after the user has been bounced randomly through three other servers, protected by layers of encryption. At that point, the IP address of the user is the same as the exit node, so authorities often think it's the operator who was doing the browsing. And while Tor is used by activists, journalists, and dissidents, it can also be used by criminals.
But some operators don't care, and believe the law is on their side.
Franklin Bynum, a criminal defense lawyer in Houston, Texas, is one of those operators, and he definitely doesn't care—or at least is not too worried.
"The FBI is smart enough not to serve a search warrant to a lawyer's office when is lawfully running just a piece of internet infrastructure," Bynum told Motherboard. "It's just a node on the internet."
"It's just a node on the internet."
"You may be here because you're impressed that a law firm is so dedicated to internet freedom that it runs its own Tor exit node. Aw, shucks. You're great, too," Bynum wrote.
"Or, you might be a lawyer (or something like one) looking for where to send your bruising DMCA notice because some fragment of data—some fleeting speck of light—passed through this server on its brief journey through space and time," Bynum continued, referring to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allows copyright holders to send takedown requests to alleged violators. (It's common for Tor exit node operators to receive such notices. Andrew Lewman, the former executive director of the Tor Project, received 50 DMCA infringement notices in his five years as an operator, as Motherboard reported recently.)
In that case, given that he believes his activities are protected by the DMCA's "safe harbor" provisions, which exempt service providers from being responsible for the activities of their users, Bynum has a clear message.
"Another hobby of mine is fucking with intellectual-property lawyers [...] So, better luck next time, IP lawyer."
"One hobby of mine is maintaining this exit node. Another hobby of mine is fucking with intellectual-property lawyers [...] So, better luck next time, IP lawyer. Or, go ahead, make my day."
So far, perhaps because the exit node, which is registered to his law firm, has only been up for a few days, no one has knocked on his door, neither lawyers nor feds, Bynum told Motherboard.
And while he doesn't think law enforcement agents would bother him, he said he does have "a pit" in his stomach thinking that he might be opening himself up to government abuse and intimidation "for running this software that—funnily enough—the US government itself invented a long time ago."
Bynum, who said he's been supporting the Tor Project and other open source endeavors for years, believes that technologies such as encryption and Tor "are necessary for me to do my job effectively today," given the US government surveillance powers.
"I have to be able to communicate in a way that's free of government surveillance. That's something that's fundamental to what lawyers do," Bynum said. "I'm ethically required to do [that] for my clients."
"Free people should have free access to encryption technology."
And it's important to everyone else, Bynum said, since we all live in an "oppressive police state."
"Free people should have free access to encryption technology," Bynum, who offers clients a chance to use PGP encryption to communicate with him, added.
The DMCA notices will eventually arrive, and perhaps even some police will come asking questions given that some might end up using Bynum's exit node while trafficking in child pornography or selling drugs on online darknet markets.
Yet, for Bynum, who considers himself a geek—he set up the exit node himself using command line on a Virtual Private Server (VPS) located in Baltimore—the risk is worth it.
"I'm not getting anything out of it," he said. "But the satisfaction of being involved and supporting the project."
Watch more: Buying drugs and guns on the Dark Web.