A week after Seattle police searched the home of two well-known privacy activists for child porn and found nothing, it is being questioned why the department didn’t include a very important piece of information to obtain the warrant; that the activists operated a Tor node out of their apartment, in order to help internet users all over the world browse anonymously.
“You knew about the Tor node,” cybersecurity consultant and co- founder of Seattle’s Center for Open Policing Eric Rachner said to the police department on Twitter. “But didn’t mention it in the warrant application. Y’all pulled a fast one on the judge…you knew the uploader could have been literally anyone in the world.”
At 6 a.m. on March 30th, Seattle police showed up at the Queen Ann apartment f Jan Bultmann and David Robinson with a search warrant to search they’re residence for child porn. They didn’t find anything. Bultmann and Robinson are both board members of the Seattle Privacy Coalition, were released after being held in a van, but said they were shaken up and upset.
“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 question was asked in the aftermath of the search whether Seattle police had done their technical due diligence: Did they recognize that Bultmann and David were operating a Tor node? If they did, why didn’t they realize that a tip about child porn coming from that IP address, without any other evidence, meant someone else in another part of the world had uploaded the material and it had been randomly routed through their Tor node?
Tor uses encryption to prevent whoever operates the node from viewing what passes through it. The warrant says the child porn was uploaded to an encrypted web address onto an encrypted address on 4chan. Therefore, Bultmann and Robinson wouldn’t have been able to give any leads to the police about the source of the material. Robinson said he would have been happy to answer any questions if they had simply asked.
“It’s like raiding the mailman’s house for delivering illegal goods with no return address. Sure, it could have been sent by the mailman, but it could have been sent by anyone. There isn’t any more reason to suspect the exit done operators than anyone else in the whole world who could have also used the node,” a researcher at the tech website YCombinator.
A PDF warrant application signed by King County Superior Court Judge Bill Bowman, doesn’t have any mention of the Tor node, or anything about Bultmann and Robinson’s roles as privacy activists. The warrant application to obtain subscriber records related to the address from Wave G, their ISP. Both applications suggest that Bultmann and Robinson are nothing more than ordinary web users with a private home connection.
“I believe one or more people or computers located at they’re address violated laws against child pornography,” Detective Daljit Gill wrote.
Knowing that, moving in, it doesn’t automatically preclude the idea that the people running Tor are not also involved in child porn,” SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb told NPR. “It does offer a plausible alibi, but it’s still something that we need to check out.”