Do You Run a Tor Server? You May Risk Going to Jail

Server RoomImagine sitting your home one day enjoying a movie with the spouse when suddenly the police burst through the door. They confiscate your computers and charge you with possession and/or transmission of unlawful photographs. You might legitimately have no idea what they’re talking about, but a Tor server you’ve been running in the back room out of the kindness of your own heart has been linked to the transmission of illegal materials.

This is the reality for one Austrian IT professional who has been charged as the result of one of seven Tor exit nodes he operated out of his home. One of the Tor users had apparently been using the network to mask their illegal habits, and the police were able to trace the activity to one of the nodes operating out of the man’s home.

You might be thinking that this is just a case where the law hasn’t caught up to technology, and it’s obvious he had no idea what was being transmitted through his servers.

The Tor Project (otherwise called The Onion Router) is a freely available project where users exchange a little of their bandwidth in order to gain a significant amount of privacy online. In theory, you should be able to browse, converse, and download information without being easily tracked or traced. Your information (encrypted) goes back and forth through a network of other Tor users and servers hosted all across the globe. For all the site owner would know, you’re accessing a page from Tokyo instead of Tacoma.

The origins of the Tor Project stem from designs created by the US Naval Research Laboratory in order to safeguard the identities and information of operatives in unfriendly territory. It has been utilized by law enforcement and whistleblowers in order to protect assets. In general, the Tor network is about as anonymous as you can get.

Unfortunately, this means hosts in the Tor network are willingly allowing users to utilize their bandwidth for whatever it is they’re doing online. This could include whistleblower information or illegal data. The person running the Tor host has no clue what’s really flowing through their servers. It’s all encrypted at that point and might as well be a bundle of useless bits and bytes of information.

What Else Can You Do?

There really isn’t a lot you can do to safeguard your identity or activity online these days. In many countries, ISPs are required to store detailed logs for up to five years. You could opt to use public networks and systems such as the ones available at a local library though there are other more immediate security concerns these types of solutions present.

Bottom line, there’s risk inherent in doing anything that has the potential of connecting you to activities that are out of your control. Running a Tor node out of your home is a great way to contribute to the ideal of providing a safe platform for political dissidents and whistleblowers, but its open nature comes with the drawback of also being an appealing stomping ground for the seedier members of society.

I’ll open this question to you, the reader. How would you safeguard your identity online? Do you use or contribute to the Tor Project? What measures do you take to protect yourself?

Image: Tom Raftery

7 comments On Do You Run a Tor Server? You May Risk Going to Jail

  • If you had an attorney try to classify you as a carrier at least in the US you would be exempt from the content. One would argue that it this service is available to everyone mainly to law enforcement and other people that need what is at least in the US a constitutional (Bill of rights) right to privacy. If you are to hold someone accountable for transmitting something they were unaware of like transmitting of illegal content through an encrypted network which you are a carrier of then the same rational would be applied to the government making roads and then arresting the politicians for building the network of roads because someone is moving illegal content from one state to another.

  • Mr. Monk raises the excellent point of why they haven’t arrested Austrian internet providers for the same offense. Even in Austria, I suspect, just because they arrest you it doesn’t mean that they can convict you. Just harassment.

  • This sort of nonsense is becoming too common. It’s got less to do with law, order or justice than it has with the fact that the politicians, judiciary and police of most western nations are now totally owned by big money. Copy a few DVDs or enjoy a little porn and you’ll find the local police aren’t quite as under-resourced as they claimed last time you were burgled. For quota-driven police forces, this kind of stuff is a gift – safer and easier than real police work.

    There’s an old saying that whenever a man does something dishonourable, he’ll probably claim it was his duty.

  • What is he being charged with?
    Having illegal data?
    Or simply aiding in the transmission of illegal data?

    Ideally (I don’t know the TOR protocols), not one node would contain an entire file. Therefore you never have any copies of illegal files on and one particular node. Just portions of. And those would be random bits, since it is encrypted, correct? So the file could not be identified, at least by content.

    Ha, a good lawyer should get him out of this. EXACTLY what wrong did he do? Internet servers / ISPs are JUST as guilty as this guy, if not more so in some circumstances.

  • Geez…. Who didnt see that coming as a possibility. When things are hidden under a rock somewhere with time you turn that rock over and your bound to find far more nasties than you thought would turn up.

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Ryan Matthew Pierson