[tor-dev] Proposal 203: Avoiding censorship by impersonating an HTTPS server
nickm at freehaven.net
Mon Jun 25 22:23:34 UTC 2012
Hi all. Here's a proposal for ticket #5548. Let's discuss!
Title: Avoiding censorship by impersonating an HTTPS server
Author: Nick Mathewson
Created: 24 Jun 2012
One frequently proposed approach for censorship resistance is that
Tor bridges ought to act like another TLS-based service, and deliver
traffic to Tor only if the client can demonstrate some shared
knowledge with the bridge.
In this document, I discuss some design considerations for building
such systems, and propose a few possible architectures and designs.
Most of our previous work on censorship resistance has focused on
preventing passive attackers from identifying Tor bridges, or from
doing so cheaply. But active attackers exist, and exist in the wild:
right now, the most sophisticated censors use their anti-Tor passive
attacks only as a first round of filtering before launching a
secondary active attack to confirm suspected Tor nodes.
One idea we've been talking about for a while is that of having a
service that looks like an HTTPS service unless a client does some
particular secret thing to prove it is allowed to use it as a Tor
bridge. Such a system would still succumb to passive traffic
analysis attacks (since the packet timings and sizes for HTTPS don't
look that much like Tor), but it would be enough to beat many current
Goals and requirements:
We should make it impossible for a passive attacker who examines only
a few packets at a time to distinguish Tor->Bridge traffic from an
HTTPS client talking to an HTTPS server.
We should make it impossible for an active attacker talking to the
server to tell a Tor bridge server from regular HTTPS server.
We should make it impossible for an active attacker who can MITM the
server to learn from the client whether it thought it was connecting
to an HTTPS server or a Tor bridge. (This implies that an MITM
attacker shouldn't be able to learn anything that would help it
convince the server to act like a bridge.)
It would be nice to minimize the required code changes to Tor, and
the required code changes to any other software.
It would be good to avoid any requirement of close integration with
any particular HTTP or HTTPS implementation.
If we're replacing our own profile with that of an HTTPS service, we
should do so in a way that lets us use a the profile of a popular
Efficiency would be good: layering TLS inside TLS is best avoided if
We need an actual web server; HTTP and HTTPS are so complicated that
there's no practical way to behave in a bug-compatible way with any
popular webserver short of running that webserver.
More obviously, we need a TLS implementation (or we can't implement
HTTPS), and we need a Tor bridge (since that's the whole point of
So from a top-level point of view, the question becomes: how shall we
wire these together?
There are three obvious ways; I'll discuss them in turn below.
Design #1: TLS in Tor
Under this design, Tor accepts HTTPS connections, decides which ones
don't look like the Tor protocol, and relays them to a webserver.
+------+ TLS | +------------+ http +-----------+ |
| User |<------> | Tor Bridge |<----->| Webserver | |
+------+ | +------------+ +-----------+ |
| trusted host/network |
This approach would let us use a completely unmodified webserver
implementation, but would require the most extensive changes in Tor:
we'd need to add yet another flavor to Tor's TLS ice cream parlor,
and try to emulate a popular webserver's TLS behavior even more
To authenticate, we would need to take a hybrid approach, and begin
forwarding traffic to the webserver as soon as soon as a webserver
might respond to the traffic. This could be pretty complicated,
since it requires us to have a model of how the webserver would
respond to any given set of bytes. As a workaround, we might try
relaying _all_ input to the webserver, and only replying as Tor in
the cases where the website hasn't replied. (This would likely to
create recognizable timing patterns, though.)
The authentication itself could use a system akin to Tor proposals
189/190, where an early AUTHORIZE cell shows knowledge of a shared
secret if the client is a Tor client.
Design #2: TLS in the web server
+------+ TLS | +------------+ tor0 +-----+ |
| User |<------> | Webserver |<------->| Tor | |
+------+ | +------------+ +-----+ |
| trusted host/network |
In this design, we write an Apache module or something that can
recognize an authenticator of some kind in an HTTPS header, or
recognize a valid AUTHORIZE cell, and respond by forwarding the
traffic to a Tor instance.
To avoid the efficiency issue of doing an extra local
encrypt/decrypt, we need to have the webserver talk to Tor over a
local unencrypted connection. (I've denoted this as "tor0" in the
diagram above.) For implementation convenience, we might want to
implement that as a NULL TLS connection, so that the Tor server code
wouldn't have to change except to allow local NULL TLS connections in
For the Tor handshake to work properly here, we'll need a way for the
Tor instance to know which public key the webserver is configured to
We wouldn't need to support the parts of the Tor link protocol used
to authenticate clients to servers: relays shouldn't be using this
subsystem at all.
The Tor client would need to connect and prove its status as a Tor
client. If the client uses some means other then AUTHORIZE cells, or
if we want to do the authentication in a pluggable transport, and we
therefore decided to offload the responsibility TLS itself to the
pluggable transport, that would scare me: Supporting pluggable
transports that have the responsibility for TLS would make it fairly
easy to mess up the crypto, and I'd rather not have it be so easy to
write a pluggable transport that accidentally makes Tor less secure.
Design #3: Reverse proxy
| +-------+ http +-----------+ |
| | |<------>| Webserver | |
+------+ TLS | | | +-----------+ |
| User |<------> | Proxy | |
+------+ | | | tor0 +-----------+ |
| | |<------>| Tor | |
| +-------+ +-----------+ |
| trusted host/network |
In this design, we write a server-side proxy to sit in front of Tor
and a webserver, or repurpose some existing HTTPS proxy. Its role
will be to do TLS, and then forward connections to Tor or the
webserver as appropriate. (In the web world, this kind of thing is
called a "reverse proxy", so that's the term I'm using here.)
To avoid fingerprinting, we should choose a proxy that's already in
common use as a TLS frontend for webservers -- nginx, perhaps.
Unfortunately, the more popular tools here seem to be pretty complex,
and the simpler tools less widely deployed. More investigation would
The authorization considerations would be as in Design #2 above; for
the reasons discussed there, it's probably a good idea to build the
necessary authorization into Tor itself.
I generally like this design best: it lets us isolate the "Check for
a valid authenticator and/or a valid or invalid HTTP header, and
react accordingly" question to a single program.
How to authenticate: The easiest way
Designing a good MITM-resistant AUTHORIZE cell, or an equivalent
HTTP header, is an open problem that we should solve in proposals
190 and 191 and their successors. I'm calling it out-of-scope here;
please see those proposals, their attendant discussion, and their
How to authenticate: a slightly harder way
Some proposals in this vein have in the past suggested a special
HTTP header to distinguish Tor connections from non-Tor connections.
This could work too, though it would require substantially larger
changes on the Tor client's part, would still require the client
take measures to avoid MITM attacks, and would also require the
client to implement a particular browser's http profile.
Some considerations on distinguishability
Against a passive eavesdropper, the easiest way to avoid
distinguishability in server responses will be to use an actual web
server or reverse web proxy's TLS implementation.
(Distinguishability based on client TLS use is another topic
Against an active non-MITM attacker, the best probing attacks will be
ones designed to provoke the system in acting in ways different from
those in which a webserver would act: responding earlier than a web
server would respond, or later, or differently. We need to make sure
that, whatever the front-end program is, it answers anything that
would qualify as a well-formed or ill-formed HTTP request whenever
the web server would. This must mean, for example, that whatever the
correct form of client authorization turns out to be, no prefix of
that authorization is ever something that the webserver would respond
to. With some web servers (I believe), that's as easy as making sure
that any valid authenticator isn't too long, and doesn't contain a CR
or LF character. With others, the authenticator would need to be a
valid HTTP request, with all the attendant difficulty that would
Against an attacker who can MITM the bridge, the best attacks will be
to wait for clients to connect and see how they behave. In this
case, the client probably needs to be able to authenticate the bridge
certificate as presented in the initial TLS handshake -- or some
other aspect of the TLS handshake if we're feeling insane. If the
certificate or handshake isn't as expected, the client should behave
as a web browser that's just received a bad TLS certificate. (The
alternative there would be to try to impersonate an HTTPS client that
has just accepted a self-signed certificate. But that would probably
require the Tor client to impersonate a full web browser, which isn't
Side note: What to put on the webserver?
To credibly pretend not to be ourselves, we must pretend to be
something else in particular -- and something not easily identifiable
or inherently worthless. We should not, for example, have all
deployments of this kind use a fixed website, even if that website is
the default "Welcome to Apache" configuration: A censor would
probably feel that they weren't breaking anything important by
blocking all unconfigured websites with nothing on them.
Therefore, we should probably conceive of a system like this as
"Something to add to your HTTPS website" rather than as a standalone
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