A search warrant was carried out last week on outspoken privacy activists Jan Bultmann and David Robinson of the Seattle Privacy Coalition. According to a report from NPR, the married couple were raided by a team of six detectives from the Seattle Police Department at 6:15 a.m. on March 30, claiming to be looking for child pornography.
Robinson concluded that he was left with little choice but to let them in and give them his computer passwords. The police found nothing.
“They were there because I run a Tor exit relay…. They wasted their time, they frightened us, they cost us money, and they violated our constitutional rights. And it was all needless… This kind of pointless intimidation of Tor operators just hurts the Tor network.”
The Tor network (short for The Onion Router) is what is known as a “dark web” service – a (theoretically) untraceable connection to sites that exist alongside the conventional web and are only accessible through a special browser. Due to the distributed nature, the service is both conventionally anonymous and encrypted. It can potentially be monitored at an “exit node” such as Robinson and Bultmann’s, but under normal circumstances, they have no idea what is passing through their servers.
“As part of our privacy work, we provide [Tor] as a service to activists who need to use the internet without being surveilled.”
Eric Rachner, a cybersecurity consultant and co-founder of Seattle’s Center for Open Policing, addressed the police department directly on Twitter in the wake of the raid.
“You knew about the Tor node, but didn’t mention it in warrant application. Y’all pulled a fast one on the judge… you knew the uploader could have been literally anyone in the world.”
When the raid was carried out, an officer was stationed in the bedroom to watch Robinson get dressed; the couple was then temporarily detained in a van while police searched.
Many have asked whether the police were as informed as the couple claims, but they publicly advertise that they operate a Tor node, and according to Bultmann, the police were well aware of who they were and what they did.
“…hints and comments [were] made about our cars, our jobs, our histories… revealing that we were thoroughly researched.”
Another warrant dated February 24, to obtain subscriber details from their internet provider, also fails to make any mention of the Tor node or their privacy activism, treating the couple as ordinary home users. “I believe one or more person(s) and/or computer(s) located at [their address],” wrote Detective Daljit Gill on the warrant application — and SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb later admitted that the police department understands how Tor works, that the police knew about the node, but defended police actions regardless.
“Knowing that, moving in, it doesn’t automatically preclude the idea that the people running Tor are not also involved in child porn. It does offer a plausible alibi, but it’s still something that we need to check out.”
Robinson’s belief is that the police deliberately avoided checking the couple’s IP address against a list of Tor nodes in order to obtain the warrant without — technically — leaving known information off of the application. “Why spoil a perfectly good warrant with facts?”
[Photo by Michael Bocchieri/Getty Images]