Being brought in for questioning by authorities is nothing new to Tor exit node operators. When an operator receives attention from a government agency, it’s often in regard to serious crimes such as a child pornography ring or a potential terror threat: two examples that require investigation. Given that the users of Tor have their identity masked and the only visible I.P. address is that of the server that hosts the exit node, the operator is often the first step in an investigation.
This time, the motivation behind the police involvement was surprisingly different. Motherboard writes that Polish authorities have requested that British law enforcement pick up and question an exit node volunteer, Thomas White. The reason the node operator is being hassled by the authorities is unusual; there was an ‘offensive’ forum post insulting the ex-mayor of a small Polish town and White’s exit node was the I.P. address used. This is, as we discover, illegal in Poland.
The District Public Prosecutor’s Office in Bialystok, Poland, in a letter written to the UK Home Office explains this. Article 212, paragraph 2 of the Polish Penal Code says that someone who speaks of a person in a way that might “degrade them in public opinion or expose them to the loss of confidence necessary to occupy a given position […] is subject to a fine or the penalty of limitation of liberty”
The letter also tells us that a forum user of “Forum.Poranny.pl” named “~Gość~” rambled about Roman Czepe, a former mayor of small town Łapy. “When he read the post, Roman Czepe felt offended by the words used in it,” the letter informs British Police. “He testified that such a statement clearly humiliated him in the face of public opinion.”
The entire situation seems absolutely bizarre, but it’s doubtful that a case against White could ever be made. No Tor operator is able to locate the origin of web traffic that flows through the node and Thomas White is no exception. He is unlikely to willingly comply with Polish authorities, he tells Motherboard.
“I wish to make my position known that I have no intention of complying with the request from the Polish authorities. As far as I am concerned, the person who made the post is expressing a personal opinion on a public official, somebody to whom Mr. Czepe is accountable and answerable as a former democratically elected person and a supposed representative of the people of Poland. As such, the poster is entitled to share his opinion and have it entered into the public sphere,”
For the most part, innocent node operators are rarely held accountable for the data that runs through them. It has happened, but according to Andrew Lewman, the executive director of the Tor project, if an agency investigates an innocent node operator, “they do it on purpose, as in to make a show of force.” He does remind us that operators aren’t inherently innocent either.
Thomas White is tied to several major hacks and data dumps, so there’s also the possibility that the inquisition regarding the forum post is simply an attempt at getting more information on White. He has hosted the data dumps from the Ashley Madison hack, the Fraternal Order of Police hack, and the Patreon hack. Although, to Poland, I imagine the insulting forum post might be more important; it would serve as a statement regarding how serious they are about hurt feelings online, as well as how far they will go to hunt you down.
The Onion Project always needs volunteers to run exit nodes, but as evident in the article above, the interference from law enforcement keeps getting more prevalent. The recommended route, though, is remote, offshore hosting. Self-hosted exit nodes are clearly an invitation for police raids and constant harassment.