Tor exit relays in libraries: a new LFP project

Greetings! It’s been an exceptionally busy few months over here at the Library Freedom Project. We’ve been conducting privacy trainings at libraries across the United States and some internationally, and in June we held our first Digital Rights in Libraries conference. We’re also starting an HTTPS campaign for libraries with friend o’ the Library Freedom Project Eric Hellman and the good folks working on Let’s Encrypt (more on that to come in about a week or so). LFP: can’t stop, won’t stop.

Today, we’re announcing the start of a new initiative, a collaboration between the Library Freedom Project and our friends at the Tor Project: Tor exit relays in libraries. Nima Fatemi, the Tor Project member who’s already helped Library Freedom Project in a number of ways, is our main partner on this project. This is an idea whose time has come; libraries are our most democratic public spaces, protecting our intellectual freedom, privacy, and unfettered access to information, and Tor Project creates software that allows all people to have these rights on the internet. What’s more, Tor Project is Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), which is the best defense against government and corporate surveillance. We’re excited to combine our efforts to help libraries protect internet freedom, strengthen the Tor network, and educate the public about how Tor can help protect their right to digital free expression.

Libraries have been committed to intellectual freedom and privacy for decades, outlining these commitments in the ALA Core Values of Librarianship, the Freedom to Read Statement, and the ALA Code of Ethics. They’re also centers of education in their local communities, offering free classes on a variety of subjects, including computer instruction. Libraries serve a diverse audience; many of our community members are people who need Tor but don’t know that it exists. Some of these patrons are part of vulnerable groups, like domestic violence survivors, racial and ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ communities. Others belong to local law enforcement or municipal government. All of them could benefit from learning about Tor in a trusted, welcoming environment like the library.

Bringing Tor exit relays into our libraries would not only be a powerful symbolic gesture demonstrating our commitment to a free internet, but also a practical way to help the Tor network, and an excellent opportunity to help educate our patrons, staff, boards of trustees, and other stakeholders about the importance of Tor. Relays make up the backbone of the Tor network, which is what powers the Tor Browser. Tor Browser is the only web browser that gives the user anonymity and prevents tracking and censorship. It’s a powerful tool for free expression, one that libraries should be installing on their public PCs and teaching to patrons. I’ve written about the importance of using and teaching Tor Browser in libraries here.

When a user opens the Tor Browser and navigates to a website, her traffic is bounced over three relays, scrambling her traffic with three layers of encryption, making her original IP address undetectable. The exit relay is the last relay in this circuit, the one that talks to the public internet. Fast, stable exit relays are vital to the strength of the Tor network. Non-exit relays – guards, middle relays, and bridges – are also important to the Tor network, but exit nodes are the most needed, and libraries can afford some of the legal exposure that comes with an exit. It’s not dangerous to run an exit, but because the exit node is the only identifiable one on the circuit, exit operators might face the occasional DMCA notice or law enforcement officer inquiring about traffic on the node. Since libraries already provide public internet services, we are protected by from DMCA takedowns by safe harbor provisions and are shielded from the threats that an individual exit relay operator might face in trying to explain to law enforcement that the traffic leaving her exit is not her own. For more on how the Tor network and Tor Browser work, check out this awesome animation from Tor Project.

To begin this new project, we needed a pilot, and we had just the library in mind – Kilton Library in Lebanon, New Hampshire, one of two Lebanon Libraries. Chuck McAndrew is the IT librarian there, and he’s done amazing things to the computers on his network, like running them all on GNU/Linux distributions. Why is this significant? Most library environments run Microsoft Windows, and we know that Microsoft participated in the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program. By choosing GNU/Linux operating systems and installing some privacy-protecting browser extensions too, Chuck’s helping his staff and patrons opt-out of pervasive government and corporate surveillance. Pretty awesome.

IMG_0037One of Kilton Library’s public computers running a GNU/Linux distribution.

Kilton Library is not only exemplary because of its GNU/Linux computer environment; it’s also beautiful and brand-new, LEED Gold-certified, with an inviting and sunny open floor plan and an outdoor community garden. It’s an example of the amazing potential inherent in libraries. We drove up to New Hampshire last week to start phase one.

IMG_0049

Kilton’s adult computer area with a view of its open floor plan.

At Kilton Library, we began with a library PC running Linux Debian Jessie. Tor relays can be set up on any operating system, but FOSS systems like Debian are ideal. The Tor Project publishes instructions for anyone who wants to set up a relay on Debian, but having Nima present to explain the configuration steps and take extra measures to secure the relay was invaluable.

IMG_0029Chuck and Nima getting to work on the relay.

We decided to set our pilot up as a middle relay to start – we want to ensure that it is stable and doesn’t interfere in any way with the library’s other network traffic. We nicknamed the new relay LebLibraries, and gave it 10 Mbytes/s of the library’s bandwidth. You can check out how our relay is doing by visiting Globe, which gives information about how relays are performing. Globe includes graphs of a relay’s bandwidth, uptime, and the weight of the relay in the network. For more on the lifecycle of a new relay, read this post on the Tor blog.

IMG_0035
Yes, you can borrow a telescope from this library and take it home. How cool is that?!?

After the LebLibraries relay is up for a few months, we’ll return for phase two of the project and convert it into an exit node. Our goal is to make exit relay configuration a part of the Library Freedom Project’s privacy trainings for librarians; we’ll meet with library directors and boards of trustees to talk about how Tor fits into the mission of libraries as beacons of intellectual freedom, and how we’re perfectly positioned not only to help our patrons use Tor Browser, but are the ideal location to run Tor exit relays to help give back to the Tor community.

We’d love for you to join us in this new project. Want your library to be our next exit relay site? Please send your answers to this questionnaire to us via contact page or send it directly to exits at libraryfreedomproject dot org. We’re also looking for libraries to host FOSS seedboxes, that is, torrent machines that will seed free software to help make it more available to the public. And as always, we want libraries to install and run the Tor Browser on library computers. Want to support this project and more like it? You can make a donation to the Library Freedom Project. You can also donate directly to the Tor Project. And stay tuned for phase two of our pilot with Kilton Library.

Alison and Nima outside the libraryAlison and Nima outside the awesome Kilton Library.

Alison Macrina and Nima Fatemi

58 Comments

  • Reply Lloyd Kvam July 30, 2015 at 1:18 pm

    You are hereby invited to talk to the local Linux User group. We’d love to hear more about what you are doing!

  • Reply Vanessa B July 30, 2015 at 11:12 pm

    I am a librarian based out of CT, and i think this is an excellent idea! i’d like to sign up my local library – i think as a fellow professional, i could pitch this well to the staff there. could you please connect me to someone who can help with this? my email was left with this comment

    thank you!
    Vanessa B

  • Reply Tor exit relays in libraries: a new LFP project... August 4, 2015 at 6:49 pm

    […]   […]

  • Reply » OPLIN 4cast #449: Tor exits in libraries August 5, 2015 at 2:30 pm

    […] Tor exit relays in libraries: a new LFP project (Library Freedom Project | Alison Macrina and Nima Fatemi)  “When a user opens the Tor Browser and navigates to a website, her traffic is bounced over three relays, scrambling her traffic with three layers of encryption, making her original IP address undetectable. The exit relay is the last relay in this circuit, the one that talks to the public internet. Fast, stable exit relays are vital to the strength of the Tor network. Non-exit relays – guards, middle relays, and bridges – are also important to the Tor network, but exit nodes are the most needed, and libraries can afford some of the legal exposure that comes with an exit.” […]

  • Reply Teddy Ellis August 10, 2015 at 5:13 am

    Doesn’t it make it easier for interceptors to know where the exit nodes are?

    • Reply Alison Macrina August 11, 2015 at 10:46 pm

      Hi Teddy, relays are already public.

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  • Reply Bob Robertson September 16, 2015 at 3:27 pm

    It was wonderful meeting you at the Pro-Tor protest last night.

    Let’s do it again some time!

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  • Reply Ryan Williams September 17, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    Great work! Glad to see this happening.

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