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New Hampshire Library Defends Use Of Online Anonymity Software


There are ways to make you less visible online, and one of the most popular is a tool called Tor. It's software that lets you search the web without revealing your identity or location. The Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, N.H., has been running Tor on its public computers for about a year. It's also installed a Tor relay, which permits other people using Tor elsewhere to appear as though they are working out of the library.

The library has heard from the local police, who are unhappy with the use of Tor. The police, in turn, had heard about it indirectly from the Department of Homeland Security. Even so, the library has persevered. And I asked librarian Chuck McAndrew why the library installed Tor on its computers.

CHUCK MCANDREW: So libraries have, for a long time, been very concerned with intellectual freedom and the right to free inquiry. We refer to it as the right to read. Back in 2013, Penn-America did a study that showed 1 in 6 writers had avoided writing or speaking on a topic they thought would subject them to surveillance. For me, that's a pretty textbook case of the chilling effects on intellectual freedom of surveillance. So by working for digital privacy and teaching our patrons how to protect their digital privacy, we're actually protecting their intellectual freedom.

SIEGEL: Tell us about your run-in via the local police with the Department of Homeland Security.

MCANDREW: So when we first set up the relay, we got some press. And the Department of Homeland Security apparently saw one of the articles. And they forwarded it to another police department in New Hampshire, who forwarded it to our police department. They had some concerns. Police deal with some of the worst examples of humanity on a regular basis, and they wanted to make sure that we were aware of negative uses that the Tor network could be put to.

So my library director and the president of our board of trustees agreed to put our project on hold until those concerns could be heard by the community and we could get the community input. We had more than 50 people show up to our trustees meeting. Of those, about 15 spoke. And every single one of them, without fail, was in favor.

SIEGEL: And the risks they were told of were that some criminal might also use this or a child pornographer might use this.

MCANDREW: Exactly - or terrorists. Yeah, there's a lot of negative stuff that can be done on the internet. And their argument was that we would essentially be enabling those folks.

SIEGEL: And the response from your community in Lebanon, N.H., was overwhelmingly no, the anonymity, the principle is more important than what might be the odd abuse of this privilege.

MCANDREW: Correct. One person said, you know, a bank robber can use the road to get away, but we still want to be able to drive on it.

SIEGEL: That's Chuck McAndrew. He's the IT librarian at the Kilton Public Library. Thanks for talking with us.

MCANDREW: Thank you, Robert. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.