Some draft notes on migrating Tor's ciphersuites

Nick Mathewson nickm at
Wed Dec 15 04:31:38 UTC 2010

Here's something I've worked up, with fixes from Robert Ransom.  It's
currently in doc/spec/proposals/ideas/xxx-crypto-migration.txt.  Once
it's more discussed and worked out, it should turn into a real
proposal, but I'd like to kick the ball off here.

Robert has also written up a couple of documents I'll be forwarding in
my next email.

Title: Initial thoughts on migrating Tor to new cryptography
Author: Nick Mathewson
Created: 12 December 2010

1. Introduction

  Tor currently uses AES-128, RSA-1024, and SHA1.  Even though these
  ciphers were a decent choice back in 2003, and even though attacking
  these algorithms is by no means the best way for a well-funded
  adversary to attack users (correlation attacks are still cheaper, even
  with pessimistic assumptions about the security of each cipher), we
  will want to move to better algorithms in the future.  Indeed, if
  migrating to a new ciphersuite were simple, we would probably have
  already moved to RSA-1024/AES-128/SHA256 or something like that.

  So it's a good idea to start figuring out how we can move to better
  ciphers.  Unfortunately, this is a bit nontrivial, so before we start
  doing the design work here, we should start by examining the issues
  involved.  Robert Ransom and I both decided to spend this weekend
  writing up documents of this type so that we can see how much two
  people working independently agree on.  I know more Tor than Robert;
  Robert knows far more cryptography than I do.  With luck we'll
  complement each other's work nicely.

  A note on scope: This document WILL NOT attempt to pick a new cipher
  or set of ciphers.  Instead, it's about how to migrate to new ciphers
  in general.  Any algorithms mentioned other than those we use today
  are just for illustration.

  Also, I don't much consider the importance of updating each particular
  usage; only the methods that you'd use to do it.

  Also, this isn't a complete proposal.

2. General principles and tricks

  Before I get started, let's talk about some general design issues.

2.1. Many algorithms or few?

  Protocols like TLS and OpenPGP allow a wide choice of cryptographic
  algorithms; so long as the sender and receiver (or the responder and
  initiator) have at least one mutually acceptable algorithm, they can
  converge upon it and send each other messages.

  This isn't the best choice for anonymity designs.  If two clients
  support a different set of algorithms, then an attacker can tell them
  apart.  A protocol with N ciphersuites would in principle split
  clients into 2**N-1 sets.  (In practice, nearly all users will use the
  default, and most users who choose _not_ to use the default will do so
  without considering the loss of anonymity.  See "Anonymity Loves
  Company: Usability and the Network Effect".)

  On the other hand, building only one ciphersuite into Tor has a flaw
  of its own: it has proven difficult to migrate to another one.  So
  perhaps instead of specifying only a single new ciphersuite, we should
  specify more than one, with plans to switch over (based on a flag in
  the consensus or some other secure signal) once the first choice of
  algorithms start looking iffy.  This switch-based approach would seem
  especially easy for parameterizable stuff like key sizes.

2.2. Waiting for old clients and servers to upgrade

  The easiest way to implement a shift in algorithms would be to declare
  a "flag day": once we have the new versions of the protocols
  implemented, pick a day by which everybody must upgrade to the new
  software.  Before this day, the software would have the old behavior;
  after this way, it would use the improved behavior.

  Tor tries to avoid flag days whenever possible; they have well-known
  issues.  First, since a number of our users don't automatically
  update, it can take a while for people to upgrade to new versions of
  our software.  Second and more worryingly, it's hard to get adequate
  testing for new behavior that is off-by-default.  Flag days in other
  systems have been known to leave whole networks more or less
  inoperable for months; we should not trust in our skill to avoid
  similar problems.

  So if we're avoiding flag days, what can we do?

  * We can add _support_ for new behavior early, and have clients use it
    where it's available.  (Clients know the advertised versions of the
    Tor servers they use-- but see 2.3 below for a danger here, and 2.4
    for a bigger danger.)

  * We can remove misfeatures that _prevent_ deployment of new
    behavior.  For instance, if a certain key length has an arbitrary
    1024-bit limit, we can remove that arbitrary limitation.

  * Once an optional new behavior is ubiquitous enough, the authorities
    can stop accepting descriptors from servers that do not have it
    until they upgrade.

  It is far easier to remove arbitrary limitations than to make other
  changes; such changes are generally safe to back-port to older stable
  release series.  But in general, it's much better to avoid any plans
  that require waiting for any version of Tor to no longer be in common
  use: a stable release can take on the order of 2.5 years to start
  dropping off the radar.  Thandy might fix that, but even if a perfect
  Thandy release comes out tomorrow, we'll still have lots of older
  clients and relays not using it.

  We'll have to approach the migration problem on a case-by-case basis
  as we consider the algorithms used by Tor and how to change them.

2.3. Early adopters and other partitioning dangers

  It's pretty much unavoidable that clients running software that speak
  the new version of any protocol will be distinguishable from those
  that cannot speak the new version.  This is inevitable, though we
  could try to minimize the number of such partitioning sets by having
  features turned on in the same release rather than one-at-a-time.

  Another option here is to have new protocols controlled by a
  configuration tri-state with values "on", "off", and "auto".  The
  "auto" value means to look at the consensus to decide wither to use
  the feature; the other two values are self-explanatory.  We'd ship
  clients with the feature set to "auto" by default, with people only
  using "on" for testing.

  If we're worried about early client-side implementations of a protocol
  turning out to be broken, we can have the consensus value say _which_
  versions should turn on the protocol.

2.4. Avoid whole-circuit switches

  One risky kind of protocol migration is a feature that gets used only
  when all the routers in a circuit support it.  If such a feature is
  implemented by few relays, then each relay learns a lot about the rest
  of the path by seeing it used.  On the other hand, if the feature is
  implemented by most relays, then a relay learns a lot about the rest of
  the path when the feature is *not* used.

  It's okay to have a feature that can be only used if two consecutive
  routers in the patch support it: each router knows the ones adjacent
  to it, after all, so knowing what version of Tor they're running is no
  big deal.

2.5. The Second System Effect rears its ugly head

  Any attempt at improving Tor's crypto is likely to involve changes
  throughout the Tor protocol.  We should be aware of the risks of
  falling into what Fred Brooks called the "Second System Effect": when
  redesigning a fielded system, it's always tempting to try to shovel in
  every possible change that one ever wanted to make to it.

  This is a fine time to make parts of our protocol that weren't
  previously versionable into ones that are easier to upgrade in the
  future.  This probably _isn't_ time to redesign every aspect of the
  Tor protocol that anybody finds problematic.

2.6. Low-hanging fruit and well-lit areas

  Not all parts of Tor are tightly covered.  If it's possible to upgrade
  different parts of the system at different rates from one another, we
  should consider doing the stuff we can do easier, earlier.

  But remember the story of the policeman who finds a drunk under a
  streetlamp, staring at the ground?  The cop asks, "What are you
  doing?"  The drunk says, "I'm looking for my keys!"  "Oh, did you drop
  them around here?" says the policeman.  "No," says the drunk, "But the
  light is so much better here!"

  Or less proverbially: Simply because a change is easiest, does not
  mean it is the best use of our time.  We should avoid getting bogged
  down solving the _easy_ aspects of our system unless they happen also
  to be _important_.

2.7. Nice safe boring codes

  Let's avoid, to the extent that we can:
    - being the primary user of any cryptographic construction or
    - anything that hasn't gotten much attention in the literature.
    - anything we would have to implement from scratch
    - anything without a nice BSD-licensed C implementation

  Sometimes we'll have the choice of a more efficient algorithm or a
  more boring & well-analyzed one.  We should not even consider trading
  conservative design for efficiency unless we are firmly in the
  critical path.

2.8. Key restrictions

  Our spec says that RSA exponents should be 65537, but our code never
  checks for that.  If we want to bolster resistance against collision
  attacks, we could check this requirement.  To the best of my
  knowledge, nothing violates it except for tools like "shallot" that
  generate cute memorable .onion names.  If we want to be nice to
  shallot users, we could check the requirement for everything *except*
  hidden service identity keys.

3. Aspects of Tor's cryptography, and thoughts on how to upgrade them all

3.1. Link cryptography

  Tor uses TLS for its link cryptography; it is easy to add more
  ciphersuites to the acceptable list, or increase the length of
  link-crypto public keys, or increase the length of the DH parameter,
  or sign the X509 certificates with any digest algorithm that OpenSSL
  clients will support.  Current Tor versions do not check any of these
  against expected values.

  The identity key used to sign the second certificate in the current
  handshake protocol, however, is harder to change, since it needs to
  match up with what we see in the router descriptor for the router
  we're connecting to.  See notes on router identity below.  So long as
  the certificate chain is ultimately authenticated by a RSA-1024 key,
  it's not clear whether making the link RSA key longer on its own
  really improves matters or not.

  Recall also that for anti-fingerprinting reasons, we're thinking of
  revising the protocol handshake sometime in the 0.2.3.x timeframe.
  If we do that, that might be a good time to make sure that we aren't
  limited by the old identity key size.

3.2. Circuit-extend crypto

  Currently, our code requires RSA onion keys to be 1024 bits long.
  Additionally, current nodes will not deliver an EXTEND cell unless it
  is the right length.

  For this, we might add a second, longer onion-key to router
  descriptors, and a second CREATE2 cell to open new circuits
  using this key type.  It should contain not only the onionskin, but
  also information on onionskin version and ciphersuite.  Onionskins
  generated for CREATE2 cells should use a larger DH group as well, and
  keys should be derived from DH results using a better digest algorithm.

  We should remove the length limit on EXTEND cells, backported to all
  supported stable versions; call these "EXTEND2" cells.  Call these
  "lightly patched".  Clients could use the new EXTEND2/CREATE2 format
  whenever using a lightly patched or new server to extend to a new
  server, and the old EXTEND/CREATE format otherwise.

  The new onion skin format should try to avoid the design oddities of
  our old one.  Instead of its current iffy hybrid encryption scheme, it
  should probably do something more like a BEAR/LIONESS operation with a
  fixed key on the g^x value, followed by a public key encryption on the
  start of the encrypted data.  (Robert reminded me about this

  The current EXTEND cell format ends with a router identity
  fingerprint, which is used by the extended-from router to authenticate
  the extended-to router when it connects.  Changes to this will
  interact with changes to how long an identity key can be and to the
  link protocol; see notes on the link protocol above and about router
  identity below.

3.2.1. Circuit-extend crypto: fast case

  When we do unauthenticated circuit extends with CREATE/CREATED_FAST,
  the two input values are combined with SHA1.  I believe that's okay;
  using any entropy here at all is overkill.

3.3. Relay crypto

  Upon receiving relay cells, a router transforms the payload portion of
  the cell with the appropriate key appropriate key, sees if it
  recognizes the cell (the recognized field is zero, the digest field is
  correct, the cell is outbound), and passes them on if not.  It is
  possible for each hop in the circuit to handle the relay crypto
  differently; nobody but the client and the hop in question need to
  coordinate their operations.

  It's not clear, though, whether updating the relay crypto algorithms
  would help anything, unless we changed the whole relay cell processing
  format too.  The stream cipher is good enough, and the use of 4 bytes
  of digest does not have enough bits to provide cryptographic strength,
  no matter what cipher we use.

  This is the likeliest area for the second-system effect to strike;
  there are lots of opportunities to try to be more clever than we are

3.4. Router identity

  This is one of the hardest things to change.  Right now, routers are
  identified by a "fingerprint" equal to the SHA1 hash of their 1024-bit
  identity key as given in their router descriptor.  No existing Tor
  will accept any other size of identity key, or any other hash
  algorithm.  The identity key itself is used:
    - To sign the router descriptors
    - To sign link-key certificates
    - To determine the least significant bits of circuit IDs used on a
      Tor instance's links (see tor-spec §5.1)

  The fingerprint is used:
    - To identify a router identity key in EXTEND cells
    - To identify a router identity key in bridge lines
    - Throughout the controller interface
    - To fetch bridge descriptors for a bridge
    - To identify a particular router throughout the codebase
    - In the .exit notation.
    - By the controller to identify nodes
    - To identify servers in the logs
    - Probably other places too

  To begin to allow other key types, key lengths, and hash functions, we
  would either need to wait till all current Tors are obsolete, or allow
  routers to have more than one identity for a while.

  To allow routers to have more than one identity, we need to
  cross-certify identity keys.  We can do this trivially, in theory, by
  listing both keys in the router descriptor and having both identities
  sign the descriptor.  In practice, we will need to analyze this pretty
  carefully to avoid attacks where one key is completely fake aimed to
  trick old clients somehow.

  Upgrading the hash algorithm once would be easy: just say that all
  new-type keys get hashed using the new hash algorithm.  Remaining
  future-proof could be tricky.

  This is one of the hardest areas to update; "SHA1 of identity key" is
  assumed in so many places throughout Tor that we'll probably need a
  lot of design work to work with something else.

3.5. Directory objects

  Fortunately, the problem is not so bad for consensuses themselves,
    - Authority identity keys are allowed to be RSA keys of any length;
      in practice I think they are all 3072 bits.
    - Authority signing keys are also allowed to be of any length.
      AFAIK the code works with longer signing keys just fine.
    - Currently, votes are hashed with both sha1 and sha256; adding
      more hash algorithms isn't so hard.
    - Microdescriptor consensuses are all signed using sha256.  While
      regular consensuses are signed using sha1, exploitable collisions
      are hard to come up with, since once you had a collision, you
      would need to get a majority of other authorities to agree to
      generate it.

  Router descriptors are currently identified by SHA1 digests of their
  identity keys and descriptor digests in regular consensuses, and by
  SHA1 digests of identity keys and SHA256 digests of microdescriptors
  in microdesc consensuses.  The consensus-flavors design allows us to
  generate new flavors of consensus that identity routers by new hashes
  of their identity keys.  Alternatively, existing consensuses could be
  expanded to contain more hashes, though that would have some space

  Router descriptors themselves are signed using RSA-1024 identity keys
  and SHA1.  For information on updating identity keys, see above.

  Router descriptors and extra-info documents cross-certify one another
  using SHA1.

  Microdescriptors are currently specified to contain exactly one
  onion key, of length 1024 bits.

3.6. The directory protocol

  Most objects are indexed by SHA1 hash of an identity key or a
  descriptor object.  Adding more hash types wouldn't be a huge problem
  at the directory cache level.

3.7. The hidden service protocol

  Hidden services self-identify by a 1024-bit RSA key.  Other key
  lengths are not supported.  This key is turned into an 80 bit half
  SHA-1 hash for hidden service names.

  The most simple change here would be to set an interface for putting
  the whole ugly SHA1 hash in the hidden service name.  Remember that
  this needs to coexist with the authentication system which also uses
  .onion hostnames; that hostnames top out around 255 characters and and
  their components top out at 63.

  Currently, ESTABLISH_INTRO cells take a key length parameter, so in
  theory they allow longer keys.  The rest of the protocol assumes that
  this will be hashed into a 20-byte SHA1 identifier.  Changing that
  would require changes at the introduction point as well as the hidden

  The parsing code for hidden service descriptors currently enforce a
  1024-bit identity key, though this does not seem to be described in
  the specification.  Changing that would be at least as hard as doing
  it for regular identity keys.

  Fortunately, hidden services are nearly completely orthogonal to
  everything else.

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