AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When the FBI tried to force Apple to unlock that iPhone last month, it was a battle of titans - high-powered lawyers, PR strategies, the whole works. But what happens when law enforcement is frustrated by encryption that's run by private citizens? NPR's Martin Kaste has the story of one such person and the day last week when the police showed up at his door.
MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: It was last Wednesday, a little after 6 in the morning when David Robinson found he had Seattle police coming into his bedroom.
DAVID ROBINSON: I was undressed, and so I started to reach to close the door when the cop steps through the door and says, no, I have to stand here while you're getting dressed.
KASTE: His wife had let them in because they had a warrant. They said a child pornography image had been traced to Robinson's home internet address. He says right away he knew what had happened.
ROBINSON: They were there because I run a Tor exit relay, and that means that traffic passes through my computers, and I don't know what it is.
KASTE: Tor - it stands for The Onion Router, and it's a system for surfing the internet anonymously. People use it to get around government censorship or hide from surveillance, but criminals use it, too. You may have heard about the narcotics black market called Silk Road which was busted by the feds back in 2013. Tor depends on Internet connections provided by thousands of volunteers, people like Robinson, who's also a privacy activist here in Seattle.
ROBINSON: What was upsetting about it was that they should have known.
KASTE: Robinson says he asked the police if they understood how a Tor relay worked.
ROBINSON: And one of the cops was a well-informed techie, and he said, yes, like, we understand what it is; we understand. I said, well, then you understand that I don't have any control or knowledge of things that pass over my network, and there's no reason for you to be coming in here and accusing me of having child pornography.
KASTE: Other privacy activists went online to complain about the surge, saying it was like raiding the post office because it had delivered a package containing contraband. The spokesman for Seattle Police, Sean Whitcomb, says his department gets that, but he takes the analogy a little further.
SEAN WHITCOMB: When that post office is also someone's personal residence, well, then in that case, yes, we do have an obligation to search for evidence of a crime. And in this case, we're not just talking about any crime. We're talking about child pornography, which is just an absolutely vile offense.
KASTE: Rightly or wrongly, a Tor volunteer risks being associated with crimes like that, especially if the Tor relay comes out of his home address. And when the police show up, that person is going to feel pretty alone, legally speaking.
JEFFREY FISHER: An individual is highly unlikely to have access to an attorney at his or her fingertips.
KASTE: Stanford Law professor Jeffrey Fisher worked on an important case involving police access to cell phones. He says volunteers like this may find themselves in a tough spot because there's still a lot of gray area when it comes to shielding technology from the police.
FISHER: Testing the legal boundaries of the police authority in this context could be extensive, difficult, cumbersome and perhaps treacherous.
KASTE: The people who run the global Tor Project say raids like this happen only occasionally, and they say even with a warrant, the police can't uncloak the encrypted communications that run through a volunteer's machine.
But that doesn't mean the police can't exert some pressure. There was a hint of that last summer in Lebanon, N.H., when a branch of the public library started hosting a Tor connection. Chuck McAndrew is the information technology librarian there.
CHUCK MCANDREW: The police department never actually told us to shut this down or anything like that. They did have some strong feelings against the use of the Tor network, and they had some concerns about the fact that the city library would be contributing towards this.
KASTE: But Tor supporters rallied to the cause, and the library kept hosting the connection. In Seattle, David Robinson says last week's police search hasn't changed his mind about Tor, either.
ROBINSON: There need to be more Tor exit nodes, more Tor nodes, generally, and you don't need to be discouraging people from doing it by intimidating them with bogus criminal complaints. So I mean, I have every right to do this, and I wasn't doing anything wrong or unethical.
KASTE: To him, it's a matter of principle that he should be able to run a Tor relay out of his home without raising suspicions. Though, he admits that in practice, that's something he may have to reassess. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.