In 2017, Russian police detained a 26-year-old math teacher for allegedly calling for riots in Moscow’s Red Square.
According to The Moscow Times, the police were after whoever posted under an alias to call for “rags, bottles, gas, turpentine, styrofoam and acetone” to be brought to an unsanctioned protest. The posts also contained a link to a music video in which protesters launch Molotov cocktails at police.
A year later, the teacher, Dmitry Bogatov, has been acquitted.
Bogatov denied writing the posts: as the administrator of a Tor exit node, it could have been anyone who used his IP address. Bogatov hosts a Tor node, through which other internet users can surf anonymously.
He’s not the first Tor node administrator whose IP address has led police to his door. Two years ago, police traced illegal child abuse imagery to a married couple’s home IP address in Seattle.
Early one morning, Jan Bultmann and David Robinson woke to detectives from the Seattle Police Department who demanded passwords to access the couple’s computers. They consented to the search and gave their passwords to police, who found no child abuse imagery, didn’t seize any equipment, and made no arrests.
The couple, who are well-known privacy advocates, are also hosts for a Tor exit node – a fact that local police were aware of.
According to the Tor Project, Tor relay operators have “no records of the traffic that passes over the network and therefore cannot provide any information about its origin.”
Nonetheless, exit node hosts have been subpoenaed or even charged with crimes in several cases, including the tech blog Boing Boing, which fought off a subpoena from the FBI with a sternly worded letter.
Kate Krauss, director of communications and public policy at the Tor Project, told Naked Security at the time that law enforcement action against Tor exit node hosts is “rare,” but the Tor Project recommends that “people who want to run exit nodes sit down with law enforcement ahead of time and explain how Tor works.”
Bultmann and Robinson explained to law enforcement that they were running a Tor exit node, and had nothing to do with child abuse imagery passed over the Tor network.
In spite of Seattle police having been aware that the couple hosted an exit node, and in spite of investigators having known how Tor works, a Seattle police spokesperson told NPR at the time that running an exit node “doesn’t automatically preclude the idea that the people running Tor are not also involved in” the alleged criminal activity.
But in the case of Dmitry Bogatov, Russian police found no reason to charge him. A public campaign had been launched to get him out of jail. Bogatov’s attorney, Alexei Teptsov, reportedly told the state-run TASS news agency earlier this month that after months in jail, Bogatov was acquitted. Investigators concluded that he hadn’t committed a crime.
According to the Russian site Meduza, Russia has a new suspect in the investigation, and Bogatov has gone from being a suspect to a witness.
Five days after dropping charges against Bogatov, a Moscow court ordered the arrest of a 33-year-old database administrator named Vladislav Kuleshov on identical charges: i.e., public incitement to terrorism and mass riots.
Bogatov has been named as a witness in the case against Kuleshov. According to Meduza, the math teacher also faces a misdemeanor charge for using the Tor browser.
Bogatov says it’s all nonsense, given that Russia’s ban on “internet circumvention technology,” which went into effect in November 2017, isn’t retroactive. Meduza reports that since the law took effect, there have been no reported cases of anyone being fined for using Tor or any other internet anonymizer.