Libraries and the Tor Browser

Libraries and the Tor Browser

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a librarian for my opinion on library patrons using Tor in public libraries. My initial reaction, based upon having done more than a few cybercrime cases, is that Tor in public libraries is a bad idea. How can law enforcement track criminals who use library computers when the Tor browser is being used?  And libraries are government entities! Tax dollars would be spent helping criminals commit crimes on the Internet and remain anonymous. By all means, NO! Don’t do it!

From a law enforcement perspective (which I have not lost since my days in law enforcement), the Tor browser makes cybercrime investigations practically impossible to identify the user for 99% of cyber detectives and this is a major problem for investigators.  The remaining 1% of cyber analyts have access to supercomputers and virtually unlimited budgets that is beyond the scope and reach of the regular police detective.   Since the Tor network is so effective in providing anonymity to Internet users and police are practically powerless against it, why support it since criminals are using it?

About a half second later, my opinion changed.

The public library protects freedoms more than most people will ever know (except for librarians…they know about freedom protections). Sure, police protect freedoms by protecting Constitutions (state and federal versions) but law enforcement has a dilemma. On one hand, they swear to protect freedoms and on the other, the freedoms restrict their ability to protect.  Using the First Amendment as an example;

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Taking the freedom of speech as an example, people have a right to express themselves and that not only includes speaking, but also reading, and communicating (assembly) with other people. Libraries provide access to information and support intellectual freedom.  And of course, people abuse freedoms and commit crimes, such as harassment where free speech goes too far and intrudes on someone else’s rights. Maybe it's easier to protect speech by getting rid of it? Nope. That doesn't work...

Many (all?) public libraries today in the United States provide Internet access with WiFi and public terminals. Complete freedom to browse the Internet and communicate with people around the world certainly meets freedom of speech criteria.  You can’t get much more supportive in providing access to information than that. As a government entity, the public library supports the First Amendment more than any other entitity.

Here comes Tor.

Without getting into too much detail about “Tor” (The Onion Router: http://www.torproject.org), let’s just say that Tor can be looked at simply as an Internet browser that hides the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the computer user. That means that a computer user can be practically anonymous online when using the Tor browser.  The Internet history cannot be tracked, the physical location of the user cannot be tracked, and users can feel secure that they have privacy online without interference from government or other persons.

Internet privacy is important. Not only is government tracking of Internet users invasive, but so is corporate intrusions into personal privacy. Every person has different tastes, likes, interests, and beliefs. The founding principle of privacy is…privacy. Tor provides that privacy when it is used appropriately.

Running the Tor browser is simple enough since it is just an Internet browser (basically anyway). For a library to support Tor use, IT staff just need to download the browser to the public computers and put the icon on the desktop.  That’s all there is to it to give library patrons access to Internet privacy.

During a recent conversation with a librarian, I was told that the library (in the Seattle area), does not monitor, track, record, or even look at patron Internet history and useage. After explaining that the library certainly has the technology to do so, by default in their network system, and that every patron’s Internet history can be viewed, tracked, recorded, logged, and be required to be produced to law enforcement by court order, the conversation changed quite a bit. Obviously, if a crime has been committed and a search warrant is obtained, providing any information to investigate and prosecute criminals is a good thing for society as a whole.  The drawback is Internet history being logged or viewed for all patrons, in any manner, for general purpose or for later historical analysis. That negates privacy and goes against intellectual freedoms for which the public library stands.

With Tor, patrons can generally be assured their Internet use is private (barring screen capture software, keyloggers, compromised systems, etc…). This is a good thing for patrons to have as a choice. Tor is not perfect and has drawbacks to the ‘normal’ Internet browsers, but for the most part, if privacy is a concern, the Tor browser relieves the concerns.

As an investigative point, if a criminal wants to remain anonymous and use Tor to commit crimes, the library probably isn’t the best place to do it. Although most libraries do not have video surveillance cameras, some do.  There are libraries (the East Baton Rouge Parish Library as one example) that hire police officers as security! For a criminal to use a library computer to commit a crime may make it easier to get caught.

Tor relays: it’s Tor, but a little bit different topic. One of the methods that Tor is effective is that when using the Tor browser, computer relays (“Tor relays”) are being used to route the computer user’s traffic around the world.

http://www.torproject.org 

Anyone can volunteer to be a Tor exit relay, where Internet traffic running through the Tor network will ‘exit’ from your system. By being a volunteer, you help world-wide Internet anonymity by providing a Tor exit relay. For the most part, nothing bad happens, but occasionally, the Internet traffic leaving your relay could be criminal in some aspect, such as child pornography. You won’t see it, nor have anything to do with it, but your IP address will be tied to it since your relay is the last relay to receive/send it.

Not that this makes you a criminal, or that you facilitated a crime any more than if you sold a Ford that was used in a bank robbery as a getaway car, but it can happen. Today, law enforcement is more aware that Tor exit relays are not the source of crime, and the person running the relay is not the criminal they are looking for.

https://www.propublica.org/article/library-support-anonymous-internet-browsing-effort-stops-after-dhs-email

So it was strange to find an article where law enforcement pressured a library to not volunteer as a Tor relay. Tor relays exist world-wide. There are literally thousands of relays, everywhere. Shutting down every relay is virtually impossible. So why push libraries to not volunteer when it is the public library standing for the freedoms in the first place?

As a business consideration, my opinion on public libraries being Tor exit routers depends upon the cost required to set up and maintain it since public libraries are funded by the public with taxes. Other than that, if the public supports it and libraries can do it, why not? A public library can do little more for intellectual freedom than not only providing use of the Tor browser, but also operating a Tor relay.

Restricting or eliminating use of the Tor network would be like shutting down Toyota dealerships because the Toyota Camry is used for bank robbery getaway cars.

For the investigators worried about rampant crime in the library because of Tor…you can still catch the cybercriminals.  And for libraries worried that they will facilitate crime, don’t worry about that either. Tor users can’t choose the Tor exit relays.  It won’t be like cybercriminals will be able to pick a library Tor exit relay and commit crimes.  I give an entire chapter on beating Tor in my next book, at least as much as Tor can be beaten.

 

 

 

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Tuesday, 17 October 2017