A recent case in New Hampshire illustrates how libraries continue to be battlegrounds for privacy rights. The Kilton Public Library in Lebanon, N.H., a town of about 13,000 people, decided to join Tor, an anonymization network for online activities. It was a pilot for a bigger Tor relay system envisioned by the Library Freedom Project. According to Ars Technica, the Library Freedom Project seeks to set up Tor exit relays in libraries throughout the country. “As of now, only about 1,000 exit relays exist worldwide. If this plan is successful, it could vastly increase the scope and speed of the famed anonymizing network.”
The Department of Homeland Security learned of the pilot, Pro Publica reported: “Soon after state authorities received an email about it from an agent at the Department of Homeland Security. […] After a meeting at which local police and city officials discussed how Tor could be exploited by criminals, the library pulled the plug on the project.”
After much criticism of the DHS and local law enforcement interference and petitions to reinstate the pilot project (including one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation), the Kilton library’s board voted a few weeks later to reinstate the project. “Alison Macrina, the founder of the Library Freedom Project which brought Tor to Kilton Public Library, said the risk of criminal activity taking place on Tor is not a sufficient reason to suspend its use. For comparison, she said, the city is not going to shut down its roads simply because some people choose to drive drunk,” the Valley News reported.
There is a history of libraries battling federal and other law enforcement agencies as they seek information on library patrons or fight privacy-protective programs such as the Tor relay project at Kilton. For example, in the 1980s, the FBI asked librarians in New York to watch and report on suspicious library patrons and sought records as part of its Library Awareness Program.
One library official, Paula Kaufman, wrote a letter to the New York Library Association explaining the FBI attempt to recruit her. The New York Times reported in September 1987:
”They explained that they were doing a general ‘library awareness’ program in the city and that they were asking librarians to be alert to the use of their libraries by persons from countries ‘hostile to the United States, such as the Soviet Union’ and to provide the F.B.I. with information about these activities,” she said in her letter. ”I explained that we were not prepared to cooperate with them in any way, described our philosophies and policies respecting privacy, confidentiality and academic freedom, and told them they were not welcome here.”
During a congressional hearing about the program, the FBI said operated a similar program in the 1970s, and “very very helpful things came out of it,” the New York Times reported. It was later revealed that the FBI investigated people — librarians and others — because they protested the Library Awareness Program.
This is just a sampling of the privacy battles that librarians have fought for readers. It is important to note that the fights are ongoing, and libraries need public support when they are able to detail such battles.