The Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, made headlines last year after becoming the first library in the U.S. to offer free, anonymous Internet via Tor. Advocates around the world were quick to praise the new initiative, but when the Department of Homeland Security caught wind of what was happening it was quickly shut down.
Fortunately, after numerous protests from both the town’s 13,000 residents and advocates abroad, the Kilton Library was able to reinstate the Tor network, and today stands at the forefront of a global shift towards privacy.
ExpressVPN interviewed Chuck McAndrew, the library’s IT Manager who spearheaded the Tor initiative.
Here’s what he had to say.
ExpressVPN: What kind of feedback did you receive after you took the Tor network down? Were there any particular responses that stood out to you?
Chuck McAndrew: There are two responses that stood out to me. One was a patron who grew up in Russia. He said that he had started using Tor in Russia to get access to uncensored media reports. He told us that he couldn’t even access Reddit without Tor. This is a classic example of surveillance chilling intellectual freedom and shows how privacy technologies such as Tor protect people’s freedom to read. As a librarian, this is something that I care deeply about.
The second response was a phone call from an Internet crimes detective on the west coast. He congratulated us on our project and told us that far from discouraging Tor, his department actually taught its use. Especially to victims of domestic violence. He told us that Internet savvy abusers can track their victims online unless they have some form of protection. Tor is easy to use and very effective, so that is what they started to teach. I thought this was a great example of a law enforcement community taking advantage of technology to really help people.
ExpressVPN: You took the Tor network down after local law enforcement became involved. How long did it take for you to reactivate it?
McAndrew: It took about a month to get it turned back on. In the end, the overwhelming community support convinced our board of trustees that they had made the right decision to start with. We turned the relay back on the same night.
“Digital privacy is an issue people care a lot about, contrary to what you are constantly told. People mostly just feel hopeless about it.“
ExpressVPN: How did the Department of Homeland Security become involved? How did they respond to you reactivating the Tor network?
McAndrew: Apparently, they saw an article in Ars Technica about our project. We never received any direct communication from DHS. To my knowledge there was never a direct response to us reactivating the relay either.
ExpressVPN: What prompted you to put up Tor relays at the library?
McAndrew: Librarians have always cared deeply about protecting privacy, intellectual freedom, and access to information (the freedom to read). Surveillance has a very well-documented chilling effect on intellectual freedom. It is the job of librarians to remove barriers to information. This could be lack of money (we provide Internet access to those who can’t afford computers/Internet), lack of knowledge (our reference librarians teach people how to find information), or a thousand other things.
In this case, the barrier to open access to information was pervasive surveillance. By hosting a Tor relay, we help to remove this barrier. We also greatly increase the impact of our library. We are not limited to helping a population in a very geographically limited area anymore. We can now help political activists in Iran, Human rights workers in China, investigative reporters in Africa, and domestic violence victims in the Pacific Northwest. When Alison Macrina from the Library Freedom Project approached us with the idea of hosting a relay, it immediately made sense for us to do it.
ExpressVPN: How did the public respond to the idea of Tor?
McAndrew: Overwhelming support. We had more than 50 people show up to the trustees meeting where it was going to be considered. About 15 of those spoke. Every single person was in favor of us doing this. They came from different backgrounds, young, old, conservative, liberal, but all agreed this was a good thing that they wanted their library involved in.
ExpressVPN: Do you recommend using Tor nodes at home—whether it be an exit node or a relay?
“Surveillance has a very well documented chilling effect of intellectual freedom. It is the job of librarians to remove barriers to access information.”
McAndrew: Hosting Tor nodes at home is problematic. That is why it is important that trusted public institutions, such as libraries, do it. First, hosting a server of any kind very likely violates your ISP’s terms of service agreement. Second, if you host an exit relay, everything people do on your relay will be traceable to your IP.
Public libraries are classified as a safe harbor under the DMCA. Individuals are not. So if someone uses your relay to download a copyrighted movie or song, you potentially could face some difficulties. Although it is likely that you could prove you didn’t do it, it would still mean a host of problems for you.
ExpressVPN: How has the public responded to using Tor? Any specific stories that stand out?
McAndrew: The public has shown they are very interested in digital privacy. We have used the Tor project to start a discussion on these issues in our community. Since this all started, we have begun offering online self-defense classes (teaching how to guard your information and to stay safe online).
We have also done other privacy-focused programming such as screening CitizenFour. Digital privacy is an issue that people care a lot about, contrary to what you are constantly told. People mostly just feel hopeless about it. Once they start hearing about practical things that they can do to regain control of their information, they become VERY interested.
ExpressVPN: This project has been an overwhelming success. Do you think other libraries will soon follow suit and install Tor relays on their servers as well?
McAndrew: We would love to see other libraries follow suit. We always planned on our library simply being the pilot for a larger nationwide program. Like everything, this will take time. We continue to talk to other libraries, and the Library Freedom Project is actively working with a number of libraries that have an interest in participating.
library image: leblibrary.com