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The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) recently forced a public library to shut down the Tor exit relay it began hosting over the summer.

Back in July, the Kilton Public Library in New Hampshire became the first library to begin hosting an exit relay for the anonymizing service. This move was the start of a new initiative launched by the Library Freedom Project (LFP), an organization dedicated to preserving libraries as a source of intellectual freedom and privacy.

“[L]ibraries 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,” explains the LFP on its website. “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.”

kilton public library
The Kilton Public Library (Source: Truth In Media)

Privacy fans hoped that Kilton would become the first of many public libraries to set up an Tor exit relay under the LFP’s initiative. But according to Naked Security, a write-up of this story by Ars Technica back in late July attracted the attention of federal agents, who were opposed to the idea of introducing the anonymizing service to library patrons.

The DHS, which was involved last fall in the takedown of 400 “.onion” domains under Operation Onymous, met with city officials and the town’s police department. Following this meeting, the library decided to take down the relay.

“Right now we’re on pause,” Sean Fleming, director of the Kilton Public Library, told ProPublica. “We really weren’t anticipating that there would be any controversy at all.”

Fleming has stated that the library board will meet on September 15th to discuss whether to turn the service back on. In anticipation of this meeting, he Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Tor Project, and other privacy organizations have signed an online petition encouraging the library board to reinstate the relay.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the DHS has released the following statement about the incident:

“The use of a Tor browser is not, in [or] of itself, illegal and there are legitimate purposes for its use. However, the protections that Tor offers can be attractive to criminal enterprises or actors and HSI will continue to pursue those individuals who seek to use the anonymizing technology to further their illicit activity.”

As TechCrunch rightly notes, by this, logic, cars, guns, and bricks should be outlawed due to their potential for nefarious use.