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Small town library leads freedom of internet browsing charge

A small town library in New Hampshire is having a big impact on discussions of privacy and freedom of information. The Kilton Public Library in the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire, population 13,000, withstood requests from Homeland Security to shut down their Tor internet browser-equipped PCs, and continues to allow identity-masked internet searches and traffic despite the concerns of local law enforcement, according to ABC News.

The library is running a pilot project for Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Library Freedom Project. The project chose the Kilton Public Library for the pilot partly because library staff had a history of protecting information freedom rights and personal privacy and also because the Project personnel believed the library had the technical know-how to install and maintain the systems used in the pilot. U.S. libraries have a long and storied tradition of defending freedom of speech and personal privacy.

Related: A beginner’s guide to Tor: How to navigate through the underground Internet

The concern about the library’s system stems from four computers in the center of the library. The four systems are equipped with the Tor browser, which passes internet searches through a random series of other Tor-equipped computers all over the world, masking both the location and the IP address of the computer that sent the original search. If you watch NCIS or other criminal investigation or intelligence shows or films you’ve likely seen people trying to trace a computer with a screen full of lines criss-crossing the globe.

Kilton takes it a step further, however. Most computers with Tor are referred to as Tor relays, of which there are approximately 7,200 in the world, the type that you’d see bouncing signals on NCIS. Kilton’s system, however, is an exit relay, one of only about 1,000. Exit relays dump all reference to the search path and all the destination computer sees is the last computer — in this case, one of four sitting on a table in New Hampshire. No other U.S. library is set up as an exit relay.

Because of the levels of identity masking in the Kilton exit-relay system, people with good or ill intent may be using the library computers, from anywhere in the world, and no one will know. Homeland Security and local police aren’t concerned about someone searching for cars who doesn’t want to inundated with targeted remarketing; they’re more concerned about criminal syndicates and terrorists who have their own reasons and uses for browsing anonymity.