In what appears to be an excellent example of the ongoing censorship in the UK, security researchers have discovered multiple airports in London are preventing access to the Tor Project’s website. The Tor Project, for those unaware, is the organization primarily responsible for maintaining the Tor, a web browser that sends traffic through an anonymous network. Not only does the network block access to the Tor Project’s home page, but also blocks traffic to tails.boum.org where the Tor Project’s operating system, Tails, is located.
So far, only the Heathrow and Stansted airports have been confirmed to be restricting access to Tor related sites, but there’s no reason the trend would end with those two. To get a better understanding of what was going on, Motherboard reached out to Heathrow Airport but very little was learned.
When viewing the FAQ for Heathrow Airport’s wireless network, third-party filtering services “will automatically block access to certain types of websites and content which is deemed as inappropriate.” The filtering service, come to find out, is done voluntarily by Arqiva, a major British telecommunication company. Arqiva provides content filtering for many public internet access points throughout the UK. “This is a standard product that we bought off-the-shelf from Arqiva,” Julia Weir, the head of PR at Heathrow Airport tells Motherboard in a phone conversation. She claims Heathrow had no say in blocking Tor.
In an email with Steve Litwin, a service relationship manager at Arqiva, he claims the filtering is “based on the requirements of Heathrow Airport.” Arqiva themselves to not create the filters – those are produced by the cybersecurity company OpenDNS. The filters are mainly for restricting access to websites providing pornography, nudity, fraud, etc., but there is an option to block proxy services: “Sites providing proxy bypass information or services. Also, sites that allow the user to surf the net anonymously, including sites that allow the user to send anonymous emails.” Tor could fall under that category. Regardless, it doesn’t change the issue at hand: that The Tor Project falls under one of Heathrow Airports filtering requirements.
The Tor Project doesn’t consider the inability to download Tor at a public airport to be a major concern in comparison to other issues in the way of the organization’s goal. “Do you know anyone who tried to download their web browser at the airport?” Kate Krauss, a Tor Project spokesperson asked in an email. “We are concerned that CloudFlare is blocking access to the free internet for millions of Tor users; the idea that you may not be able to download our web browser from Heathrow while waiting for the airport shuttle is a bit less worrying,” the email goes on to explain. She also points out that there are many other sources to download Tor. Some of which are unlikely to be restricted.
Whether or not this is an intentional move by London Airports in a censorship effort, the Tor Project wants Tor to be easily available to people across the globe and this is directly preventing that. It is worth pointing out that public wifi is undoubtedly one of the worst places to download a web browser built on anonymity.