Libraries shouldn’t provide free Internet, it may be used by criminals. That’s the logic used by law enforcement in telling libraries, of all places, that Tor is not welcome in our society.
There are many problems with this logic and many problems with the information DHS intended to be facts.
From Julia Angwin’s ProPublica article:
DHS spokesman Shawn Neudauer said the agent was simply providing “visibility/situational awareness,” and did not have any direct contact with the Lebanon police or library. “The use of a Tor browser is not, in [or] of itself, illegal and there are legitimate purposes for its use,” Neudauer said, “However, 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.”
When the DHS inquiry was brought to his attention, Lt. Matthew Isham of the Lebanon Police Department was concerned. “For all the good that a Tor may allow as far as speech, there is also the criminal side that would take advantage of that as well,” Isham said. “We felt we needed to make the city aware of it.”
This is the logical slippery slope:
- Tor traffic is part malicious. We must ban it.
- Internet traffic is part malicious. We must ban it.
- Human activity is part malicious. We must ban it.
“Think back to the Internet in the late 80’s, early 90’s. We heard that the Internet was for child-molesters, money laundering, drug dealing and pornography. ‘Who would want to use this Internet thing? It’s only bad!’ That’s where the deep web is now.”
Using the Internet was a scary proposition at one point in history. Tor has a lower adoption rate comparatively because most people haven’t found a value motive for it. Slowly but surely, people found a use for the Internet, despite some of our law makers (leaders?) missing out.
Every person connecting to the Internet at home using a Wi-Fi access point is using a technology called Network Address Translation. NAT translates your personal computer’s IP address into a publicly routable one that has the effect of distancing its users from more specific, attributable metadata. Police aren’t up-in-arms over NAT because it’s a transparent process and used by almost every person using the Internet. However, it’s not like special interest groups haven’t tried to make it illegal:
A simple ban on devices capable of concealing communication would make a wide range of multi-purpose tools illegal. Widely-used home networking equipment could be banned because it often includes “network address translation” (NAT) and firewall features that incidentally conceal the origin and destinations of Internet communication.
Like NAT, Tor is fundamentally a security tool. Tor provides physical anonymity to vulnerable populations by separating an Internet user from their associated metadata. A progressive government would have different value motives. A progressive government would be asking how we can support Tor users and further ask why Tor is needed in the first place. DHS is about stopping politically defined evil doers, not about security, and therefore is regressive when it comes to solutions that also happen to support statistically trivial malice.
Tor sits on a fine line between perceived use and actual use. A lot of people won’t safeguard their privacy because of the notorious logical fallacy and blockage of “nothing to hide, nothing to fear.” At one point in history, a lot of people were opposed to using toothpaste just like a lot of people were opposed to using condoms. But over time, people learned about the factual uses of fluoride and the long term benefits of not contracting sexually transmitted diseases. It’s just something that you have to do to safeguard yourself from potential harm.
Criminals still have the right to free speech, right? Do we take away the free speech rights of non-criminals because criminals get to write books?
Tor has been popularized as something notorious and even something that can’t be trusted. We can thank educational ineptitude and regressive media. Journalists working in extremely regressive nations who rely on Tor to protect their life understand the value of Tor. People who lambaste Tor are not those people, they are people who have time to invent false causality based on financial facts.
Tor is a complex, technical system that empowers socially acceptable progress. Sometimes technical people have presumptions about Tor. Sometimes Tor gets in the way of what someone gets paid to do and we hear about it in technically and socially regressive ways. If your capacity for understanding Tor stops at the opinions of these people, then maybe you should ignore your tendency to accept what other people say and learn for yourself. Read the Tor specification. Watch the abundant amount of YouTube videos where Tor developers and security trainers are providing [meaningful, factual, applicable] information.
I hope that libraries around the world, who appreciate technologies that increase access to information, understand the net-benefit and cause-and-effect relationship between anonymity, self education, free speech, and a free press.