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Western University’s Graduate Resource Center (GRC) in London, Ontario, became the first Canadian library to host a Tor node, an anonymity network that ensures private internet browsing for students. We spoke with Marni Harrington, the associate librarian who manages the GRC, about why she is so passionate about this project.
Harrington told us that many of the students who are patrons of Western University’s GRC expect to become information professionals. With this in mind, a Tor node service seemed a natural and imperative part of the educational experience of those who will be working in a field that is “committed to intellectual freedom and patron privacy,” Harrington said.
“Our faculty-supported library and labs in Information & Media Studies are for our graduate community in library and information science, media studies, journalism, and communication,” she explained. “Each of these disciplines advocates for free speech and information privacy.”
In classrooms, instructors are using the Tor installation as a starting point to discuss privacy and security and what it means in practice for information professionals and journalists. Additionally, GRC itself honors these values by promoting private internet browsing for students.
“We are also advocating Safe Browsing Spaces on campus,” Harrington said. “This means computers running Tor software for safe and secure searching by students – international students who come from countries with restrictive online access; LGBTQ+ students who would feel safer when browsing anonymously; anyone persecuted for their religious beliefs; and others.”
Harrington would like to think the most lasting lesson goes beyond how students are taking advantage of this anonymity in the library, and into what they do in the rest of their lives. She wants them to leave the institution with the expectation of secure and private digital experiences, and hopes they have installed Tor software on their personal computers as well.
The seeds for this project were planted when Alison Macrina from the Library Freedom Project visited Western University’s campus to participate in a faculty-hosted panel discussion on information privacy. During her visit, Macrina also delivered a hands-on workshop about digital privacy and security.
“It was a fantastic learning experience for me and the students, faculty and staff who filled the computer lab,” Harrington said.
Following the workshop, a group consisting of a faculty member, a librarian, a computing services staff member, and a co-op student formed to develop a plan to maintain awareness related to internet censorship and digital surveillance.
To further gauge interest in these topics, the GRC aired Citizen Four, the documentary about Edward Snowden and his release of documents to reveal the National Security Agency’s collection of communication records from millions of people. The screening drew a large turnout and inspired an impassioned discussion with the graduate student population about privacy issues in Canada and tools for digital privacy.
Harrington says Tor software was subsequently installed on lab computers to ensure secure browsing was readily available for the graduate community. The team also developed a "Librarian's Open Source Toolbox" for a hands-on comparison of open source versus proprietary software. To further support the Library Freedom Project’s principles, the GRC regularly hosts hands-on workshops about digital security, including email encryption.
According to the Library Freedom Project website:
When a user opens the Tor Browser and navigates to a website, her traffic is bounced over three relays, scrambling her traffic with three layers of encryption, making her original IP address undetectable. The exit relay is the last relay in this circuit, the one that talks to the public internet...It’s not dangerous to run an exit, but because the exit node is the only identifiable one on the circuit, exit operators might face the occasional [Digital Millennium Copyright Act] notice or law enforcement officer inquiring about traffic on the node.
The website goes on to explain that since libraries already provide public internet services, they are protected by from DMCA takedowns by “safe harbor provisions.” Libraries also have protection from law enforcement threats that might confront an individual exit relay operator called on to defend particular internet activity.
Harrington acknowledges there was a bit of resistance from the university’s technology services department on this project, but she explains that as a Tor node is a middle relay only, not an exit, the servers do not store any of the data passed through. Additionally, there is no harm to the institution's infrastructure.
Tor software is available for anyone to install, and 280 Tor nodes are run in Canada, part of the 7000 nodes running worldwide, Harrington points out. This software is currently used to battle censorship and state-imposed firewalls around the globe so users can search news sites and use instant messaging without surveillance.
“CBC, our national broadcaster, uses the Tor network for secure communication with its journalists,” she said, adding, “It's a matter of educating people that just because you want secure and private browsing, does not mean you are doing anything illegal or immoral.”
Photo description: Matt Ward, computing services; Lindsay Taylor, MLIS student; Prof. Sarah Roberts, faculty member; Marni Harrington, librarian.