Even if you have nothing to hide, Sarah Roberts believes everyone has a right to use the Internet without being concerned about over-reaching governments, censorship or companies mining data on your search history.
To get around the threat of digital surveillance, censorship and obstruction of information, the Graduate Resource Centre in the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) has joined the Tor relay service, a global network of servers that allows for anonymous, encrypted web browsing.
“We’ve joined a worldwide network of individuals and institutions who are at various points along the chain of passing along data and connections for users around the world,” said Roberts, a Library & Information Science professor.
There are more than 7,000 Tor nodes worldwide, and about 280 in Canada. This is the first in a Canadian library, and the second library in North America to join.
The Graduate Resource Centre server is merely a mid-point, not a beginning or end, Roberts stresses. The data is not stored on Western servers.
“We are a mid-point relay, passing along data. We don’t actually keep any of the data that goes through our servers or have any access to it at all. The whole point is to provide people with anonymous browsing,” she explained.
It may seem innocent to share your name and birth date, maybe even location, when you set up an account on Facebook or log in to Google, but this digital profile becomes part of a larger picture of data collection and sharing. Roberts recognizes this seemingly docile act is the tip of the iceberg for conversations on privacy and surveillance.
The Graduate Resource Centre Tor relay is a dual-purpose Linux computer. It runs Ubuntu Desktop, plus a suite of free open-source software, including the Tor browser. Users are able to access the Tor network but, like users around the world, they don’t actually access the local Tor node directly. Instead, those on campus would be accessing other global Tor nodes, which helps keep users’ web traffic secure.
“It’s a collective effort of institutions and individuals around the world who maintain the relay service and they might be a mid-point like us, or they might be an entry or exit point. We are just sort-of in the middle, which is the most innocuous place to be,” Roberts explained.
The impetus to join Tor relay service was a visit in February by Alison Macrina from the Library Freedom Project (libraryfreedomproject.org). Her discussion and hands-on workshop using the Tor browser ignited students, faculty and staff to find a way to join this campaign and gain experience in an ever-changing and digitized, informational workplace.
Individuals use Tor to keep websites from tracking their activities, such as web browsing, connections to news sites and instant messaging services, or when these are blocked by state-imposed firewalls, which is the case in areas such as Iran, China, North Korea and Russia. Even Canadians are not outside the arms of the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA), as American whistleblower Edward Snowden exposed surveillance activities involving the trading partner and opened the conversation about surveillance and privacy concerns across borders.
“We know that just because we are in Canada, for example, we are not necessarily protected from encroachment from other countries’ security apparatuses,” Roberts said. “We know the NSA freely crosses borders and infiltrates the privacy of people around the world. These are issues that are being tested as we speak.
“If people like us, and institutions like ours, don’t take a stand and use what we have to our avail, which includes both technological expertise, but also speaking to principles we uphold, we will continue to see encroachment to people’s rights to privacy and access to information.”
Outside of state-level surveillance, Roberts said concerns about corporate surveillance and data gathering is also an issue for many.
“I’m not doing anything wrong, but that doesn’t mean I want Google to harvest and farm my behaviour. I think there are some very legitimate considerations to be had around that. A project like the Tor project gives a mechanism for people to opt out of those regimes.”
It is difficult to know the intentions behind those using Tor relay service, but that is the point, Roberts noted.
“The Tor relay service is completely agnostic, by design. We have no way of knowing what kind of information is passing through our server because we do not keep or inspect the contents of the data, which is, itself, encrypted,” she said.
Roberts makes an analogy to patrons’ privacy at libraries.
“In our public, academic and other library settings, we do not inspect our patrons’ reading lists. We do not keep circulation records of what they check out. We also do not presume to know the motives of our patrons’ use of information, but we believe firmly it ultimately benefits us all to provide access to said information – as a community, and as a society.”
Tor has been useful for journalists who want to communicate with whistleblowers and those who disagree with established institutions or beliefs. It has also been used for sensitive communication, such as providing discreet access to information, chat rooms and web forums for abuse victims or people with illnesses.
“The relay helps people in countries who do not have the same open access to the Internet like we do in Canada,” said Matt Ward, FIMS Computing and Facilities Support Specialist. “This service makes that sort of access possible and it is also the backbone of services like the new CBC SecureDrop that facilitates secure communications to CBC journalists over the Tor network.”
The Graduate Resource Centre is a working library that offers an opportunity for students in the profession to experiment with a service that puts into practice what Roberts describes as the core tenets of being a librarian.
“We have certain core values in our field and those include access to information, confidentiality and privacy for our patrons and intellectual freedom for all people,” Roberts said. “We have a particular emphasis in serving the public good and a sense of social responsibility. These are all part of our profession’s core tenets.”
Roberts expects graduates of the Library & Information Science program to be on the frontlines of debates about access to information, privacy, censorship and surveillance. They will also play a role in information literacy in determining what is ‘good’ information.
“They help guide (patrons) through a complex informational web that sometimes doesn’t make all of its motivations clear,” she said. “They have a role in advocating for individuals and patrons, and the institutional backing, typically, to do those practices in the tiny sliver that remains of our public sphere, and they continue to advocate for that as well.”