Small town library stands up to government scare tactic aimed at digital privacy tool

Nima Fatemi and Alison Macrina outside of the Kilton Library, Sept 15, 2015. (Photo credit: Paola Villareal, used with permission)

A library in a small New Hamsphire town has pushed back against an effort to shut down a program in which libraries help to ensure online anonymity. In July, the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire set up a system that allows its excess bandwidth to be used for what’s known as a Tor relay node. Tor is a platform that routes a user’s internet traffic through various relay points, thereby making warrentless surveillance of browsing habits and traffic more difficult.

People like journalists, researchers, human rights defenders, privacy activists and everyday citizens use Tor to browse or upload things to the internet with relative anonymity. But the Tor relay node at the Kilton Library drew the attention of the Department of Homeland Security, which contacted local officials and police, warning that the service could aid criminal behavior. The library took down the relay while its board mulled next steps. At a meeting last night, the library board announced it would reinstate the relay point, a decision that’s drawn praise from digital privacy advocates.

For more, FSRN’s Shannon Young spoke with Alison Macrina, director of the Library Freedom Project who helped to set up the Tor relay node at the library and Nima Fatemi, an Iranian independent researcher focused on privacy technologies and a core member of the Tor Project.

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FSRN: First – Alison, can you explain the larger implications of the library board’s decision to keep the Tor relay point up and running?

ALISON MACRINA: This is about a changing public relationship and perception around privacy and the demand from the public to be able to exercise their right to free speech, their right to privacy and a kind of more practical, less ideological demand to use a very strong tool like Tor. We saw that happen at the local level last night, but the support that we got for this project, especially after the DHS intervention happened, showed us that this is something that is about the global community much more.

FSRN: And Nima, what exactly were the concerns raised by law enforcement that led to the temporary suspension of the relay service?

NIMA FATEMI: They were worried about some criminal activities online, but the case here is clearly a case of miseducation on the law enforcement side. And this exactly why we basically picked libraries as the place, to not just have more Tor relays, but also to you know, libraries are central their communities around them. So if we provide them with the tools and materials and empower them, they can educate the communities around them, which includes law enforcement.

This reminds me of the early days of internet, how everyone was worried about what was happening on the internet. It’s this place nobody can look at, it doesn’t have any physical shape and we don’t know what’s happening inside it. Parents were not allowing kids to go online.

I remember when I was a teenager, my parents were trying to restrict my access to the internet because they had no idea what’s in it. So, I think it’s just a matter of education. I’m an Iranian activist and when I was in Iran, Tor was one of the things that protected me all the time. And I was using it to bypass censorship and take my activism online.

FSRN: I understand Tuesday night’s meeting at the library was packed. What was the discourse and debate like? Was it even a close decision?

AM: It was a unanimous decision, we didn’t have a single dissenting voice. It was incredible. The initial response that the library got was a huge outpouring of public support, both from their local community and from the global community. We had a petition, we had an open letter, we had almost 4400 signatures on a petition. The library got many dozens of emails and I think that, of all those emails, they got one negative one. Then the in-person response that we saw was, after awhile it was kind of funny. It was like ‘oh, I’m just another person saying yes to Tor’ and then another person would stand up ‘I’m just gonna echo what everyone in this room says.'” And it sort of continued like that.

Some people shared some very personal stories of their experience either using Tor or needing Tor. One remarkable story was one Colombian woman who is actually an employee of the library who said she wished that Tor had existed during the civil war that she lived through in her country because she had direct experience of being around dissidents and activists who were subject to state intimidation and violence and that was a really powerful message. Many people were crying after that one. She brought the house down with that.

FSRN: A question more for Nima: you work on the more technical aspects, how familiar are people from the general public with the concept behind Tor? Is there a good level of literacy surrounding this or do you find yourself constantly having to explain it?

NF: What was very interesting last night was how educated people in the community of New Hampshire is on what Tor is and how it works and how this technology works. And I think we still need to work on education and privacy in general and we still have to work on privacy tools like Tor to make them more usable and more understandable by people. But what I’m seeing during the past year, and especially while working with Alison on the Library Freedom Project, is that more people are becoming aware about what’s happening and more people are willing to learn more about this thing and I find it’s very amazing.

FSRN: The relay at the Kilton Library was part of a pilot program. Can you explain more about the larger project and what the reaction to it has been among librarians nationwide given what happened at Kilton?

AM: So, Library Freedom Project, as an initiative, what we do is teach privacy and anti-surveillance trainings to librarians all of the country, and increasingly internationally. When Nima and I met about a year ago, we decided together that the next steps for Library Freedom Project, instead of simply teaching about privacy tool like Tor, we could use libraries’ infrastructure to support the Tor network. And so, that’s how we came up with the idea for the pilot. People keep asking us, ‘why are there no others?’ – we really just wanted this pilot to go successfully and it’s kind of a good thing we had this one because obviously it attracted a lot of attention.

We’re looking forward to the next steps though because when we first announced the pilot project, we got a huge amount of attention from other libraries who wanted to join. When this DHS thing happened, it had a kind of Streisand Effect of folks who said either they hadn’t heard of the project before or they had heard of it, but hadn’t been interested in joining. And then, suddenly when they saw that there was this bullying from intelligence agencies and law enforcement, that they wanted to join because they thought that that was an injustice. And we’re really hoping that, since this has been a successful outcome, that it will engender even more libraries to join us.

FSRN: This isn’t the first time librarians have pushed back in an organized way against state surveillance. There’s the famous precedent of resistance to the Section 215 of the USA Patriot Act and the government’s attempt to have librarians hand over the records and reading habits of library users. What’s the connection between practitioners of library sciences and this ethos of resistance to surveillance efforts?

AM: Well, it’s actually in our essential core values and it’s been then since we drafted them, since the ALA created them in 1939. And those values include democracy as kind of a general, overarching principal and then more specifically privacy, intellectual freedom, I think community is one. And then the other ones are very much linked to those things. So, we recognize these as essential to our mission, in fact our very mission itself. So it’s no coincidence that librarians have been at the fore of a lot of the public fights, government challenges to privacy.

Our opposition to the USA Patriot Act is one we’re very well known for. Another one; librarians were actually the first to challenge the constitutionality of the gag orders attached to National Security Letters. Some librarians in Connecticut in 2005 challenged one of these and essentially the FBI dropped the suit, so they won kind of on a technicality. But they were willing to challenge that gag, which is something that is very frightening. You know, the government tells you you’re not allowed to talk about something, and you sue them anyway. And we have a whole history of different kinds of activism around this stuff.

I think what’s really remarkable about what Library Freedom Project is able to do with Nima and with Tor Project more generally is we’re introducing really practical tools that fit into the ideological mission of libraries already, but provide some meaningful things that people can do to protect themselves.

I think in the past, our activism has been more about “we oppose this and here’s why.” But now we get to say that too and we get to say “and here’s what you can do to help yourself.” And it’s really incredible. The other thing is that Tor Project’s values are very much in line with library values; recognizing that free speech and privacy are essential to what we both do. It’s kind of amazing to me that it’s taken us this long, but I’m glad that my organization got to be the one to do it, even if it was overdue.

FSRN: Given the relatively rapid explosion of the internet as an information tool – over the course of less than a generation really – Was there a lull among librarians to catch up on digital literacy and online privacy tool or was there a natural dovetail?

AM: I think that the general internet literacy, the general adoption of the internet was very swift, but privacy tools… As with the general public, I think that librarians, just like everybody else, have been a little in the dark about tools to protect their privacy because there wasn’t a very good public education or even marketing initiative around this stuff.

But what’s really remarkable – and that Nima and I have seen in the work we’re doing with the Library Freedom Project – that as soon as you bring these tools to librarians, they’re totally in. Tor is one of the most essential tools that we teach, but we include many other things to prevent different kinds of web tracking and to keep your internet searches a little bit safer and to encrypt your email and chat communications and things like that. And I hear from librarians constantly who attend our training who are just looking for even more that they can do for themselves and for their patrons. The absence of knowledge I think speaks to a bigger problem around public education around the internet generally but ore specifically around privacy tools, so we’re trying to address that.

NF: And by the way, this is why I love our project so much. I come from a Free and Open Source community and Alison comes from a library community. She has some solid understanding and knowledge about technology and I’m learning about libraries. And we are working together to bring these communities together and closer. They have a lot in common and now they are learning from each other even more.

AM: And a lot we can do together, too. Not just learn from each other, but direct work that we can be involved in, and this project I think is one big example, the exit relay project, where that is displayed very prominently. We’re excited.

Alison Macrina is the director of the Library Freedom Project and Nima Fatemi is a core member of the Tor Project. They both joined Shannon Young by phone from Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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