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TOR – A project to equip local libraries with technology supporting anonymous Internet surfing. In July, the Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, was the first library in the country to become part of the anonymous Web surfing service Tor. The library allowed Tor users around the world to bounce their Internet traffic through the library, thus masking users’ locations.

Soon after state authorities received an email about it from an agent at the Department of Homeland Security. After a meeting at which local police and city officials discussed how Tor could be exploited by criminals, the library pulled the plug on the project and currently has TOR on pause.

Used in repressive regimes by dissidents and journalists, Tor is considered a crucial tool for freedom of expression and counts the State Department among its top donors. But Tor has been a thorn in the side of law enforcement; National Security Agency documents made public by Snowden have revealed the agency’s frustration that it could only identify a “very small fraction” of Tor users.

The idea to install Tor services in libraries began initially from Boston librarian Alison Macrina’s Library Freedom Project, which aims to teach libraries how to “protect patrons’ rights to explore new ideas, no matter how controversial or subversive, unfettered by the pernicious effects of online surveillance.

After Macrina conducted a privacy training session at the Kilton library in May, she talked to the librarian about also setting up a Tor relay, the mechanism by which users across the Internet can hide their identity.

The library board of trustees unanimously approved the plan at its meeting in June, and the relay was set up in July. Law enforcement became involved  after ArsTechnica wrote an article about it. Boston DHS office forwarded the article to the New Hampshire police, who forwarded it to a sergeant at the Lebanon Police Department.

Although the use of a Tor browser is not, in [or] of itself, illegal, 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.

Deputy City Manager Paula Maville said that when she learned about Tor at the meeting with the police and the librarians, she was concerned about the service’s association with criminal activities such as pornography and drug trafficking. “That is a concern from a public relations perspective and we wanted to get those concerns on the table,” she said.

Faced with police and city concerns, library director Sean Fleming agreed to turn off the Tor relay temporarily until the library board  of trustees could reconsider.and vote on whether to turn the service back on at its meeting on Sept. 15.

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