A one-sentence email sent by an agent at the Department of Homeland Security was apparently enough to cause a small town in New Hampshire to pressure its library to shut down a private web browsing protocol it was hosting.
This summer, the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire became the first in the country to operate a Tor node. Operating a Tor node means running a part of the anonymizing network Tor, which is used by journalists, activists, and others who want to keep their web browsing activity private.
Earlier this month, Kilton became the first public library to be pressured to shut down its Tor node amid fears that the service harbors terrorists, criminals, and child pornographers. Finally, it became the first library to push back against the Department of Homeland Security by putting its node back online after a public hearing.
Emails obtained by the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and shared with Motherboard show how we got to this point. Gregory Squire, a special agent at DHS, sent an email to Tom Grella, a sergeant in the Portsmouth, New Hampshire police department. Grella forwarded the email to members of the Lebanon Police Department, who called a meeting with Sean Fleming, the director of Lebanon Public Libraries and other Lebanon officials.
Here's the whole exchange:
At the meeting, police officials "spoke about how 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."
Though Fleming initially agreed to host the node, he assured law enforcement that after the meeting he thought it was a good idea for it to remain shut down. He has since publicly supported the project and called it "an exciting thing to be a part of."
"My stance has not changed regarding the advisability of having a Tor presence at the library at this time: I do not think it is a good idea," he emailed to officials at city hall and in the police department prior to the September 15 meeting that reestablished the node.
The emails aren't the whole story here, of course. There could have been phone calls from DHS to officials in New Hampshire, and we know for sure that officials from all parties in New Hampshire held at least one meeting. Still, it's interesting to see the sausage get made. There's been much more attention put on this project as a result of DHS's involvement, and the federal government is currently waging something of a war against Tor and other online privacy tools.
The refrain that Tor is a tool for criminals has become commonplace among law enforcement, but the tool is used by those around the world who want to remain anonymous, including those who live under repressive regimes.
"If DHS hadn't gotten involved, we'd have one exit relay we finished that was operational, maybe a couple other libraries interested. This has catalyzed additional libraries and community members," Alison Macrina, who runs the Library Freedom Project, told me last week. (An exit relay is the riskiest type of node to operate, because, to investigators, it appears as if the web traffic is coming from that location)
"Folks have emailed me saying 'We don't care if it gets shut down, we want to push back against [DHS],' saying 'I don't want the government to use intimidation tactics against its citizens,'" she added.
Here are all the emails obtained by the ACLU—personal cell phone numbers have been redacted.