Seattle police descended on the Queen Anne condo of two outspoken privacy activists with a search warrant early this morning, leaving them shaken and upset.
Jan Bultmann and David Robinson, a married couple and co-founders of the Seattle Privacy Coalition, said they were awakened at 6:15 a.m. by a team of six detectives from the SPD knocking on the door. Bultmann said were made to sit outside as the officers, who had a search warrant, examined their equipment. They claimed to be looking for child pornography.
The SPD acknowledged this morning that no child porn was found, no assets were seized, and no arrests were made.
But Bultmann said many "hints and comments [were] made about our cars, our jobs, our histories... revealing that we were thoroughly researched."
The officers "usually go into these things with weapons drawn," Bultmann said they told her this morning. "They didn't with us, but it sends chills down my spine [to think] about what would have happened if they had."
Bultmann and Robinson run a Tor exit node out of their home—a node of the global Tor network that allows users to browse the web anonymously. This network allows "dissidents to communicate anonymously, citizens to bypass government censorship, and criminals to sell drugs or distribute child pornography," as VICE News puts it. Many of those who maintain the network nodes have been raided by the FBI across the country.
"As part of our privacy work," Bultmann said, "we provide it [Tor] as a service to activists who need to use the internet without being surveilled."
Robinson said the authorities should have known better than to target them. One of the officers praised Tor as a useful tool and clearly understood how it works, he said.
When you run an exit node, "you're a common carrier, like the phone company or the postal service," Robinson explained. "You're passing on whatever is in your pipeline. You don't know what's in it and you aren't legally responsible for it. You are doing a greater good by providing the service than the harm done by criminals using that tool."
The Seattle Privacy Coalition recently worked with the Murray administration to develop the city's new privacy initiative. Asked to comment on the irony of helping the city with the privacy initiative, only to have his privacy violated this morning, Robinson said, "It's not ironic. It's worrisome. I was petrified." He said one officer insisted on standing in his bedroom while he got dressed before being taken outside. The officer saw him in the nude.
This isn't the first time Bultmann and Robinson have been singled out for their activism. Last year, they received cryptic notices from Twitter indicating that "state-sponsored actors" may have hacked their accounts.
They plan to continue operating the Tor network, and in the meantime, to examine all of their equipment for any spyware police may have installed. "Why shouldn't I be able to run a Tor exit node out of my house?" Robinson said. "I feel extremely violated." He plans to contact a lawyer and the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
UPDATE 2:50 p.m.: In an e-mailed statement, the SPD says it "served a warrant at the home while investigating information received from the National Center for Missing and Exploiting Children" involving the possible distribution of child pornography. A judge signed the warrant. And: "The department greatly appreciates the ongoing work and advocacy of members of the Seattle Privacy Coalition."
This doesn't address any of the concerns raised by Bultmann and Robinson. It's worth noting that judges sometimes don't understand the technology behind the warrants they are asked to approve by police. This happened recently in Tacoma.