week 16: all about Tor

  • What was your experience like downloading and using Tor Browser?
  • How can you make use of Tor in your library?
  • What talking points can we use to make the case for Tor Browser and Tor Relays in libraries?

I dropped a share.riseup.net link to slides here: https://libraryfreedom.wiki/html/public_html/index.php/LFI_Course_Materials/Week_16:_Advanced_privacy_tools

I mostly use it at work to get around our firewall. Using a bridge helps defeat blocked sites, and I use it with patrons who run into the same issue. I’m not able to get it installed on the imaging software they use for the computers because our IT department is run by our township and doesn’t have the same priorities as the library, which is very unfortunate.

I’ve been trying to make the case for a relay since I heard Chuck at Lebanon got one running, but I haven’t had any success. I just need the correct port open and I’d be good to go, I’ve got everything set up on a debian machine in my office. I’m still pushing but it’s a struggle that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. I used to run a middle relay at home, but I moved and don’t have the machine I used to run it anymore, I try to run one on a VM but for some reason I still can’t get it working.

TOR Browser just updated on my macbook along with other apps and it honestly does feel ‘faster’ than previously. I haven’t used it a ton as I don’t generally spend time browsing online when I use my computer. Usually I just send emails or watch films (all requiring login) or work offline, so I haven’t had a compelling reason to use it. It’s always tripped me out though to see the ‘circuit’ and what the locations of the relays my request was being routed through.
I was always unsure about what TOR ‘left behind’ on my computer, or really even how it actually operated and this workshop sorted that out. That TOR ‘writes nearly nothing to disk’ and obscures website requests is a compelling reason to use TOR browser in the library, especially as a teaching tool. In this respect TOR is useful in engaging patrons on privacy issues in libraries but also provides plenty of room to smuggle in a conversation about how power over networks is maintained by the mass collection of data.
As part of the privacy rubric we’re building for this Teen Space I am going to push to get TOR browser on the Teen desktop computers. We’ll see how that goes. A TOR relay would amazing but I’m not going to push my luck at this time, admin bristled when I asked for permission to live boot from USB on lending laptops for TAILS. We are going ahead with a patron data privacy audit, I’ll take what I can get now and plot and scheme for later!

what is the issue exactly? they won’t let you open the port? what is the reason?

That’s great to hear! Speed has been a big priority over the years. Also just FYI, we stylize it Tor not TOR.

Awesome. If you want I can put you in touch with the people at the Toronto Public Library who did this on all their computers.

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The issue is my IT is run by our township and they have a different ‘mission’ than the library so they don’t seem to understand why we think this is a good idea. I don’t have control over opening any ports so I’m at their whim. The just don’t understand the point of libraries. Their excuse was that opening the port would be a ‘sercurity risk’ since they also run the police, ambulance, fire department, etc…all the township stuff. But I don’t understand why the servers are partitioned so it’s not. And I mean…either way it’s not. Partly I think it’s because the township IT director flat out doesn’t like because I keep asking him to do work. They won’t even add the browser to the computer image so my hopes for a relay have been dashed. I bring it up every year and I have for the past 3-4 years. I lack the political sway to make it happen.

I downloaded Tor at the beginning of the summer and haven’t used it much since. Our first lecture on threat modeling really made me think about what my needs actually were when browsing the Internet and I came to the conclusion that Tor didn’t need to be my first choice. I have mostly used Tor in place of using a VPN in public places like airports and hotels when on public wifi. Although I have some questions that may be pretty basic?

  • Does it negate my use of a private browser when I sign into an account - like my bank, for example?

  • What other platforms exist for entering into the “dark web” the way Tor browser/onion services allow?

  • How do we assuage people’s fears that using/downloading Tor will put them on govt watch lists?

While I cannot see my university’s tech department ever approving Tor relays in the library, I do think there would be value in having it on library computers and teaching others to use it. I know our journalism and public affairs students would particularly benefit from knowing where/how to do private research.

Overall, I think this summer has helped me to better understand how the Internet actually works and the explanation of how Tor does its thing is part of that understanding. I’ve been guilty of spreading the idea that only terrible stuff happens on the “dark” web and I understand more how that simply isn’t true. These past few months alone has changed the way I explain the information ecosystem to students.

I believe Michele A. mentioned this TED talk during our lecture on Friday - I found it to be helpful!
The Dark Net isn’t what you think. It’s actually key to our privacy | Alex Winter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=luvthTjC0OI

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I would love to speak to them! Thanks…

side note: the local cryptography club I just started working with had a brief visit by someone at EFF. I brought up Tor relays + public library project in NYC and the person at EFF seemed very excited about that prospect. I know getting this off the ground is way more complicated than that~

  • using Tor Browser: I have only used the Tor browser a handful of times. I really should use it more often, but I am just used to compulsively using Firefox. I have been using Tor’s VPN Orbot for about a year now, and I definitely get a lot of foreign ads on youtube (mainly eastern european beauty products). I tried to download the Tor browser for Android mobile devices and I’m having trouble actually using the app… I don’t have my phone with me right now, so I can’t give specifics. will try again and update the thread.

  • using Tor in the library I work in: I really doubt my (very large) university system’s IT department would enable the library to run relays… so I really think the best bet is to do outreach with student groups (how to use Tor/What is Tor) or have workshops in the library. It’d be great to maybe even set up a table outside of the library to do (interactive) outreach about encryption. Maybe journalism students would be interested in this, since it seems to be standard practice/common knowledge in the field ATM. curious about what the reception would be from computer science programs as well.

  • talking points about Tor Browser/Tor Relays: Given the increased threat(s) to journalists, whistleblowers, and marginalized people in this country by politicized attacks on civil liberties by Federal/State governments… libraries can better serve community needs and push back against these threats by increasing usage of and outreach about Tor encryption technologies. Many libraries are equipped to support Tor relays given the bandwith many libraries are alloted by ISPs.

There can also be a potential argument to be made for Tor relays that echoes the sentiments of open access to information (I’m not referring to the open licensing of academic research specifically) but more broadly - when libraries in the Global North run Tor relays (when they have the capability to) they can aid in making the Tor browser faster - which can assist in helping people who use Tor browser in countries where information is censored get what they need online faster. in short, encryption is needed to make the internet more open to all because some governments censor content and monitor data flows.

Though I am almost certain that I wouldn’t be able to convince IT to install Tor on our library’s computers, I’m going to ask a few people in IT what they think or know about Tor, just to get a conversation started. All of the library computers are so locked down, both student and staff computers, so I don’t think they will be open to change, but I can always ask. Some talking points could be that Tor browsers/relays can help to protect marginalized populations within the college and they could also be used in the classroom to teach/practice privacy and security concepts. However, instead of starting with IT, one could start the conversation about Tor browsers and their uses with relevant departments (e.g. computer science, computer networking, journalism). If we can get buy-in or interest from these departments, it can help pressure/educate IT from many directions to install Tor browser or run relays on some/all college computers.

Aside from that, I teach an overview of Tor in the dark web section of my online search strategies class. The really cool thing is that it’s not just students wanting to work in libraries that are in my class, but this class is also a required course in the Journalism department’s online research certificate and the editorial management and design certificate. I plan to make some revisions to this section to better appeal to journalism students - to demonstrate how Tor could possibly help them in their work. I feel better equipped, after this week’s lecture, to field questions about Tor.

This is neat!!

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I could see the argument of using Tor and setting up relays in the name of academic freedom and research in libraries. I was thinking about this as our library doesn’t have any control over our IT infrastructure. What could we do to set p a relay? However, if this argument was made from the academic side to freely pursue research without repurcussions, it may make more a more valid argument.

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Town IT decides what goes on the computers too? Dang.

No, because when you use Tor those websites will still not be able to tell what you’re doing on other websites.

I think we should direct people away from saying the “dark web” because it’s not really a meaningful technical term – people use it to mean “any criminal activity on the internet” and that doesn’t really help us make the case for privacy! But to answer your question, there is another privacy network called I2P. It’s pretty hard to use though.

This is hard, because it’s a rumor that’s persisted without evidence. But you can reassure them that the government is probably not doing that because they’re using it themselves. Tor originated from US Navy research and still gets a lot of govt funding today.

Who was the EFF person?

lol yesssssss obfuscation!!!

definitely let me know and we can troubleshoot or report to the developers.

I suggest trying to connect with the CS department about this. I can also connect you to the Tor people at NYU’s engineering school because maybe there’s some way to work together.

I love this idea. You should see if they want you to teach a brief Tor 101 using the slides from Friday!

Yup definitely. You might find some Tor fans in the CS departments (every time I’ve gone to those departments looking, I’ve found Tor fans).

You might be interested in the experience that Western University had of setting up a relay using this argument: https://www.fims.uwo.ca/news/2016/library_in_fims_joins_global_network_fighting_back_against_digital_surveillance_censorship_and_the_obstruction_of_information.html

And actually that relay was a partnership between the library, the LIS department, and the computer science department!


Elliot Harmon

Please connect me with them when you have the chance. I work really close to NYU’s engineering school in brooklyn

he follows me on twitter! did you mention you’re part of LFP?

also, I just connected you to George over email. he works out of Tandon and he will know who to connect you with.

My experience using Tor Browser has been mostly good. I really appreciate the little pop-up message that let’s me know that some website can track my screen size if I make it full size.

As far as how I can make use of it at my library, I can talk to people about it. I have asked for it a couple of times for our public computers, and I have been told no. My boss told me that if I keep pushing for Tor Browser a lot, then maybe that will open the door for us to get Deep Freeze. He says that he needs me to continue to be passionate about privacy, but I am never going to get what I want, but I might make it a little better than it is now.

Thank you, Alison, for your excellent class!

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That’s how politics works!!! You start with the biggest demand and then you negotiate from there!!! Keep doing it!!

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I have Tor Browser installed on my home machine but I confess that I have a pretty serious Firefox habit that I could probably expand and integrate Tor into. I am curious about it and I have found that my web browsing/experience hasn’t really been negatively impacted. I am deeply appreciative that it is secure and private.

I am fortunate in that at my library (town of ~15,000), I have an IT Department that is receptive to my ideas and work. Since I have been pioneering a role and updating the library’s systems (someone with system admin competencies is so new to the organization), I’ve been able to introduce some of these more unknown pieces as normal/every day tech (there are tons of libraries that use Tor! Let me show you!). It hasn’t been without some kind of objection/concern – the Town did block access to Tor.com website but we’ve since had conversations about privacy, technology and why libraries should include Tor as an option in our services. Mostly, from the conversations I’ve had with my Town IT Manager, I have the impression that Tor just isn’t too widely known and/or understood, which creates a concern about a threat to a larger network (viruses, bad behavior). Emphasizing privacy as a default argument and that what makes Tor different is that when users are visiting websites and/or conducting business, their activity is being routed through a variety of relays and cannot being tracked back to its original location can be helpful with winning over Town IT departments.

Installing software on a computer is a start and integrating it into the public awareness is the next step. My community is small enough where I can start a trend/awareness on the technology through programming & information literacy classes (using it as a preferred browser which will prompt a conversation and explanation about what it is and why users will want to consider adopting it in their lives) and through troubleshooting and/or providing daily technology assistance. Our reservation software (PC Res by Envisionware) allows for us to modify a field and include blurb on the sign in screen information that we’d like to share ex: library announcements, “tips of the day”, “did you knows?” – we will be including privacy tips and tools on this screen to help raise awareness (in addition to handouts, flyers, displays etc).

I think that through feedback and demonstrating that the public trusts it and that people around town seem okay with it, that some of this trust and goodwill can be leveraged to warm Town IT up to the idea of supporting more Tor technology services (relays).


I have downloaded but have not used as of yet. I was thinking that for the Census this would be a good browser to install for people who needed to use the library to fill out. We are getting one dedicated computer for each branch for the Census.

I just got notification that the IT dept is going to proceed and install Tor browser on all of the public computers here. (I also requested Onion Share, but that hasnt been approved yet) I received some push back from the assistant director but the director said that she had heard of other libraries in New Jersey doing this – Thanks TJ – and that we should have it too. Sort of a frustrating way to make decisions but it worked out in this case.