Traffic on the anonymizing Web service Tor may not be as clandestine as most people think.
The operator of a number of Tor nodes in Austria has been charged with the distribution of child pornography after illegal images were routed through his hardware, tech blog Ars Technica reported.
It's likely, however, that 20-year-old William Weber had no knowledge of the illicit activity, since a huge volume of Internet traffic from thousands of people all over the world passes through his hardware every day. The young IT administrator faces up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
Tor, short for "The Onion Router," bounces encrypted Internet traffic from one encrypted proxy server, or "node," to another, until the traffic reaches an "exit node" and enters the regular Internet. Anyone monitoring traffic that came from Tor can trace it only as far back as the exit node, which is probably why police zeroed in on Weber.
Police searched Weber's home after picking him up from work and demanding access to his apartment. The authorities then confiscated 20 computers, an Xbox 360 and several storage drives and iPads.
"Seven LKA [state police] officers, two police officers and a court-appointed expert witness started a search of the flat, without respecting my privacy or property whatsoever," Weber said in a blog posting. "Paper documents in a cupboard were read, and no care was taken of my cat (who I was allowed to lock into another room later)."
The police also confiscated Weber's legally registered weapons; however, he was not arrested. After the raid, Weber said he went to the bank to retrieve emergency cash in order to buy a new laptop.
Once the authorities understood how Tor worked, there was a "more friendly environment," he added.
Despite Tor's sometimes nefarious uses, Weber believes operating a Tor exit node is a public service and a check against government snooping.
"I believe in freedom of information," Weber said. "I mainly run the exit nodes to make it possible for the not-so-privileged folks to have uncensored access to the Internet, without fear of government prosecution."
Weber also pointed out that "there are currently not many countries with a clear legal standpoint on Tor nodes," which are caused by, and contribute to, ignorance about the technology.
Weber's case isn't the first of its kind. A German Tor node operator had his home raided and hardware confiscated after bomb threats were sent over his server in 2007. But Weber's case could set a precedent until legislators decide how to define culpability and accountability around such technology.
Anyone running a Tor exit node, as Weber was, runs the risk of being held liable for anything illicit that enters the regular Internet from that point. Most police officers and lawyers will assume that any child pornography or pirated files will have originated from the exit node's IP address.
This isn't the first time Tor has been used to transmit illegal material. Last year, a branch of the hacktivist movement Anonymous tracked down and exposed servers housing huge amounts of child pornography that were buried deep in a Tor-based "darknet." Other sites reachable only through Tor sell drugs and guns, and there are rumors of professional hit men offering their services on "darknet" sites.
Weber's case may not directly affect the journalists, dissidents, activists, government workers and others who rely on Tor to keep their online activities and communications a secret, but it's people like Weber who make their anonymity possible and their activity that puts people like Weber at risk.