Surfing anonymously? You just might get a call from campus police

Professor who used anonymity plug-in Tor received a call from campus police, wanting to know if he was covering up illegal activity. So, is protecting your anonymity a crime?

The intersection between academic freedom and security collided recently in a Bowling Green University professor's office.

In an opinion piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Paul Cesarini, an assistant professor of visual communication and technology education at BGU, described a university network-security technician and campus police paid him a visit after he'd been found using the open source software, Tor.

Tor is an open-source browser plug-in that repels online traffic analysis and related forms of Internet surveillance. Cesarini goes on to explain why someone might have a use for Tor.

"Basically, Tor is a way to surf the Internet anonymously. Someone looking up potentially sensitive information might prefer to use it — like a person who is worried about potential exposure to a sexually transmitted disease and shares a computer with roommates.
"Abuse survivors might not want anyone else knowing they have visited Web sites for support groups related to rape or incest. Journalists in repressive regimes with state-controlled media use Tor to reach foreign online news sites, chat rooms, blogs, and related venues for information."

Campus police and network security were concerned that Cesarini might be concealing illegal activity, but he was actually doing research on several courses that he teaches on "controlling technology, diffusing it throughout society, and freedom and censorship online."

Cesarini had empathy for for network-security administrators who are in charge of keeping the university network safe.

"Widespread use of Tor could be a huge headache for network-security administrators, particularly in higher education. My university alone has more than 21,000 students. Imagine what would happen if even a tenth of them and a similar percentage of faculty and staff members started using Tor regularly. With all the spam scams, phishing scams, identity theft, and related criminal enterprises going on around the world — many of which involve remotely hijacking university-owned computers — we could approach technological anarchy on the campus."

Although campus police mentioned that Cesarini was violating the campus responsible-use policy on e-mail use, he wasn't impressed. After all, Cesarini helped edit and revise that policy and knew that the provisions for a plug-in such as Tor, were vague.

Nonetheless, network administrators want him to stop using Tor and disseminating information about it. In the interest of academic freedom, Cesarini refused.

"When I cover online censorship in countries with no free press, I focus on how those countries rely on hardware, software, and phalanxes of people to make sure citizens can reach only government-approved media. Crackdowns on independent journalists, bloggers, and related dissidents all too often result in their being beaten, incarcerated, or worse. Technologies like Tor represent a beacon of freedom to people in those countries, and I would be doing my students a disservice if I didn't mention it."

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