Sep 21 2015

DHS Intervention at Public Library Triggers Discussion About Anonymous Internet Browsing

The agency’s decision to flag a public library for supporting anonymous Internet browsing opened a dialogue about freedom of speech and security.

The odds that a library in a New Hampshire town would register on the Department of Homeland Security’s radar seem low, but a Lebanon, N.H., library and DHS got acquainted over the summer. The meeting came after the library got involved with an anonymous Internet browsing service, showing both the watchful eye of the U.S. government and its fight against the dangers of anonymous browsing.

Kilton Public Library became the first in the U.S. to join Tor, a platform for online anonymity, after Library Freedom Project founder Alison Macrina spoke at the library about privacy in May. Macrina was able to persuade Kilton’s librarian to implement a relay for Tor that would mask Internet users' identities, ProPublica reports.

DHS got involved after reading a piece about Macrina’s goal of placing such an exit relay in every U.S. library:

A special agent in a Boston DHS office forwarded the article to the New Hampshire police, who forwarded it to a sergeant at the Lebanon Police Department.

DHS spokesman Shawn Neudauer said the agent was simply providing “visibility/situational awareness,” and did not have any direct contact with the Lebanon police or library. “The use of a Tor browser is not, in [or] of itself, illegal and there are legitimate purposes for its use,” Neudauer said, “However, the protections that Tor offers can be attractive to criminal enterprises or actors and HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] will continue to pursue those individuals who seek to use the anonymizing technology to further their illicit activity.”

The Lebanon Police Department eventually got local officials involved. “We felt we needed to make the city aware of it,” Lt. Matthew Isham told ProPublica.

When the city began expressing concerns, the library suspended the Tor relay. Noting that only “the Police Department and City Hall” had spoken up, library director Sean Fleming explained that the solution was only short-term.

“We need to find out what the community thinks,” Fleming said.

The public spoke, expressing enormous support for anonymous browsing. Following a library board vote this week, the library opted to resume the relay. “It came to me that I could vote in favor of the good ... or I could vote against the bad,” board Chairman Francis Oscadal explained to Valley News. “I’d rather vote for the good because there is value to this.”

Kilton Public Library’s decision represents a victory for anonymous Internet use, but it also shows how unsettling it can be for federal authorities due to potential cybersecurity issues.

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