The Case for Tor at UC Davis

At the end of July 2015, the Library Freedom Project announced the start of a new intiative to install Tor exit relays in public libraries across the United States. For the vast majority of people, two questions arise. First, why should I care? Second, wait - what's Tor?

The short answer is this: Tor is a powerful tool for providing online privacy and UC Davis has a moral obligation, as well as the technical capabilities, to significantly contribute to the initiative in a manner consistent with the University's history and its purpose. The complete answer is slightly longer.

Tor is free, open-source software designed to conceal the online identity of its user. Tor was initially developed in the mid-1990s by the US Navy and Marine Corps as a way to protect online US intelligence communications, but since then, Tor has grown to widespread use by activists, journalists, whistleblowers, dissidents, non-governmental organizations and more.

The reason why is simple - privacy needs to be protected. Privacy is a human right, enshrined explicitly in the United Nation's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and long recognized by US courts as implicit and fundamental in our Bill of Rights. Moreover, privacy is not just an individual right, but also a public good. Privacy grants us control over the information we share with others, allowing us to create public presentations of ourselves so that society can function more smoothly. By controlling when and to whom we reveal personal information such as one's support of Planned Parenthood or one's support of Donald Trump, we can more easily coexist.

Privacy also confers multiple benefits, empowering "a domestic violence victim searching for a hotline to get help," aiding "a journalist challenging sexism in online communities," and giving the necessary tools to "a government employee that needs to expose illegal surveillance." None of these examples are imaginary. Thanks to Edward Snowden leaking classified National Security Agency (NSA) information, the world has been able to learn the extent to which the US intelligence community gathers information on citizens and foreigners alike.

Your electronic information is routinely monitored, collected and stored. Your email, texts, phone calls and geographical coordinates are easily retrievable. The United Nation's special rapporteur on privacy described global mass surveillance as "worse" than anything imagined by Orwell's dystopian novel 1984. Even seemingly-innocuous information, like the locations you go to, enables others to make substantial inferences about your personal affairs; borrowing an example from Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) Senior Staff Attorney Jennifer Lynch's talk at King Hall, if you know that a woman visits a pharmacy, calls her mother, calls a male contact, and then calls a family planning clinic, you don't need to hear a word to surmise what's happening in her life.

The US intelligence community claims that this information is collected solely for the purpose of national security. But the trillions of dollars spent fighting terrorism is disproportionate to the threat it poses. As a Foreign Affairs article titled "Hardly Existential: Thinking Rationally About Terrorism" points out, wild deer and your bathtub pose more of a threat to your life than terrorists do.

The truth is that the intelligence community's true goal is to entrench its power by gaining leverage over those it deems to be adversarial or subversive. The US intelligence community has a strong history of dishonorable behavior, from the FBI's "comprehensive surveillance and harassment strategy against Dr. [Martin Luther King Jr.]" that included a letter calling for him to commit suicide to the New York Police Department's modern, targeted surveillance of Muslim communities. Yale history professor Beverly Gage accurately points out that history gives key insights into ongoing surveillance programs, writing, "Much of the conversation swirls around the possibility that agencies like the N.S.A. or the F.B.I. will use such information not to serve national security but to carry out personal and political vendettas. King's experience reminds us that these are far from idle fears, conjured in the fevered minds of civil libertarians. They are based in the hard facts of history."

This is why Tor exists - to protect the private information of anyone. According to internal NSA documents released by Snowden, Tor is "the king of high secure, low latency Internet Anonymity." (Low Latency means that Tor is fast. You don't have to wait a long time to browse the internet while using Tor.) But Tor relies entirely on what are called "exit nodes," routers that convey messages out of the Tor network to the ordinary internet. Having more exit nodes strengthens the anonymity provided by Tor, which is why the Library Freedom Project's use of public libraries' computers as exit nodes is so critical.

But as one might expect, authorities are strongly opposed to the idea of online anonymity. When Kilton Public Library agreed to serve as the pilot for the Library Freedom Project, the Department of Homeland Security intimidated the library into suspending their Tor nodes. The nodes were subsequently reinstated only after the library's board of trustees was lobbied by the EFF, the American Library Association and supporters of Tor.

This leaves us to answer the question - what can we do? When asked about the initiative, UC Davis Deputy University Librarian Bill Garrity had the following to say:

This is unacceptable. The University of California was founded as a land grant institution, intentionally created not to pursue abstract research, but to actively apply technology to better the lives of the surrounding communities and areas. Libraries have a long history and commitment to intellectual freedom and the necessary prerequisite of privacy, stated most bluntly in the American Library Association's Core Values of Librarianship:

"Protecting user privacy and confidentiality is necessary for intellectual freedom and fundamental to the ethics and practice of librarianship."

I intend to persuade Shields Library to take a leading role among public libraries by becoming the first major research library to operate Tor exit nodes. This is a moral obligation, not just for the library, but for all of us, to actively support technological solutions that defend electronic privacy and combat the continued creep of mass surveillance. If you agree with me, please email your support of Tor exit relays to Bill Garrity at wfgarrity@ucdavis.edu and cc me at ryschaeffer@ucdavis.edu.

Edit: I realize that some of the technical aspects are hand-wavy (and even at one point slightly incorrect, I believe). I wrote this with a general audience in mind, so please be lenient. If you want a complete and correct explanation of how Tor works, ask me or read this.

Edit 2: A stranger on reddit sent me Barriers to Tor Research at UC Berkeley, a paper by three UC Berkeley graduate students on the bureaucratic challenges they encountered when attempting to secure approval for an exit node. Although their goal was to monitor traffic for research purposes, it's still quite an interesting read.