[tor-dev] Automatically retrieve and store information about bridges
hahn.seb at web.de
Wed Nov 30 22:31:17 UTC 2011
Title: Automatically retrieve and store information about bridges
Author: Sebastian Hahn
Currently, tor already stores some information about the bridges it is
configured to use locally, but doesn't make great use of the stored
data. This data is the Tor configuration information about the bridge
(IP address, port, and optionally fingerprint) and the bridge descriptor
which gets stored along with the other descriptors a Tor client fetches,
as well as an "EntryGuard" line in the state file. That line includes
the Tor version we used to add the bridge, and a slightly randomized
timestamp (up to a month in the past of the real date). The descriptor
data also includes some more accurate timestamps about when the
descriptor was fetched.
The information we give out about bridges via bridgedb currently only
includes the IP address and port, because giving out the fingerprint as
well might mean that Tor clients make direct connections to the bridge
authority, since we didn't design Tor's UpdateBridgesFromAuthority
The only way to let Tor know about a change affecting the bridge (IP
address or port change) is to either ask the bridge authority directly,
or reconfigure Tor. The former requires making a non-anonymized direct
connection to the bridge authority Tonga and asking it for the current
descriptor of the bridge with a given fingerprint - this is unsafe and
also requires prior knowledge of the fingerprint. The latter requires
user intervention, first to learn that there was an update and second to
actually teach Tor about the change.
This is way too complicated for most users, and should be unnecessary
while the user has at least one bridge that remains working: Tonga can
give out bridge descriptors when asked for the descriptor for a certain
fingerprint, and Tor clients learn the fingerprint either from their
torrc file or from the first connection they make to a bridge.
For some users, however, this option is not what they want: They might
use private bridges or have special security concerns, which would make
them want to connect to the IP addresses specified in their
configuration only, and not tell Tonga about the set of bridges they
know about, even through a Tor circuit. Also see
https://blog.torproject.org/blog/different-ways-use-bridge for more
information about the different types of bridge users.
Tor should provide a new configuration option that allows bridge users
to indicate that they wish to contact Tonga anonymously and learn about
updates for the bridges that they know about, but can't currently reach.
Once those updates have been received, the clients would then hold on to
the new information in their state file, and use it across restarts for
The option UpdateBridgesFromAuthority should be removed or recycled for
this purpose, as it is currently dangerous to set (it makes direct
connections to the bridge authority, thus leaking that a user is about
to use bridges). Recycling the option is probably the better choice,
because current users of the option get a surprising and never useful
behaviour. On the other hand, users who downgrade their Tors might get
the old behaviour by accident.
If configured with this option, tor would make an anonymized connection
to Tonga to ask for the descriptors of bridges that it cannot currently
connect to, once every few hours. Making more frequent requests would
likely not help, as bridge information doesn't typically change that
frequently, and may overload Tonga.
This information needs to be stored in the state file:
- An exact copy of the Bridge stanza in the torrc file, so that tor can
detect when the bridge is unconfigured/the configuration is changed
- The IP address, port, and fingerprint we last used when making a
successful connection to the bridge, if this differs from/supplements
the configured data.
- The IP address, port, and fingerprint we learned from the bridge
authority, if this differs from both the configured data and the data
we used for the last successful connection.
We don't store more data in the state file to avoid leaking too much if
the state file falls into the hands of an adversary.
Storing sensitive data on disk is risky when the computer one uses gets
into the wrong hands, and state file entries can be used to identify
times the user was online. This is already a problem for the Bridge
lines in a user's configuration file, but by storing more information
about bridges some timings can be deduced.
Another risk is that this allows long-term tracking of users when the
set of bridges a user knows about is known to the attacker, and the set
is unique. This is not very hard to achieve for bridgedb, as users
typically make requests to it non-anomymized and bridgedb can
selectively pick bridges to report. By combining the data about
descriptor fetches on Tonga and this fingerprint, a usage pattern can be
established. Also, bridgedb could give out a made-up fingerprint to a
user that requested bridges, thus easily creating a unique set.
Users of private bridges should not set this option, as it will leak the
fingerprints of their bridges to Tonga. This is not a huge concern, as
Tonga doesn't know about those descriptors, but private bridge users
will likely want to avoid leaking the existence of their bridge. We
might want to figure out a way to indicate that a bridge is private on
the Bridge line in the configuration, so fetching the descriptor from
Tonga is disabled for those automatically. This warrants more discussion
to find a solution that doesn't require bridge users to understand the
trade-offs of setting a configuration option.
One idea is to indicate that a bridge is private by a special flag in
its bridge descriptor, so clients can avoid leaking those to the bridge
authority automatically. Also, Bridge lines for private bridges
shouldn't include the fingerprint so that users don't accidentally leak
the fingerprint to the bridge authority before they have talked to the
No change/addition to the current specification is necessary, as the
data that gets stored at clients is not covered by the specification.
This document is supposed to serve as a basis for discussion and to
provide hints for implementors.
Tonga is already set up to send out descriptors requested by clients, so
the bridge authority side doesn't need any changes. The new
configuration options governing the behaviour of Tor would be
incompatible with previous versions, so the torrc needs to be adapted.
The state file changes should not affect older versions.
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