[tor-dev] Proposal: Integration of BridgeFinder and BridgeFinderHelper

Mike Perry mikeperry at torproject.org
Thu Mar 22 01:28:08 UTC 2012

Thus spake Robert Ransom (rransom.8774 at gmail.com):

> [ snip ]

I've updated the proposal to address your concerns at mikeperry/bridgefinder2.

I've relaxed some of the requirements a little, but I think I still
properly cover everything you mentioned.

Here's the updated proposal inline for more comment:

Filename: 199-bridgefinder-integration.txt
Title: Integration of BridgeFinder and BridgeFinderHelper
Author: Mike Perry
Reviewed-By: Robert Ransom
Created: 18-03-2012
Status: Open
Target: 0.2.3.x+


  This proposal describes how the Tor client software can interact with
  an external program that performs bridge discovery based on user input
  or information extracted from a web page, QR Code, online game, or
  other transmission medium.

Scope and Audience

  This document describes how all of the components involved in bridge
  discovery communicate this information to the rest of the Tor
  software. The mechanisms of bridge discovery are not discussed, though
  the design aims to be generalized enough to allow arbitrary new
  discovery mechanisms to be added at any time.
  This document is also written with the hope that those who wish to
  implement BridgeFinder components and BridgeFinderHelpers can get
  started immediately after a read of this proposal, so that development
  of bridge discovery mechanisms can proceed in parallel to supporting
  functionality improvements in the Tor client software.

Components and Responsibilities

 0. Tor Client
    The Tor Client is the piece of software that connects to the Tor
    network (optionally using bridges) and provides a SOCKS proxy for
    use by the user.
    In initial implementations, the Tor Client will support only
    standard bridges. In later implementations, it is expected to
    support pluggable transports as defined by Proposal 180.

 1. Tor Control Port
    The Tor Control Port provides commands to perform operations,
    configuration, and to obtain status information. It also optionally
    provides event driven status updates.
    In initial implementations, it will be used directly by BridgeFinder
    to configure bridge information via GETINFO and SETCONF. It is covered
    by control-spec.txt in the tor-specs git repository.

    In later implementations, it will support the inter-controller
    POSTMESSAGE IPC protocol as defined by Proposal 197 for use
    in conveying bridge information to the Primary Controller.
 2. Primary Controller
    The Primary Controller is the program that launches and configures the
    Tor client, and monitors its status.
    On desktop platforms, this program is Vidalia, and it also launches
    the Tor Browser. On Android, this program is Orbot. Orbot does not
    launch a browser.
    On all platforms, this proposal requires that the Primary Controller
    will launch one or more BridgeFinder child processes and provide
    them with authentication information through the environment variables

    In later implementations, the Primary Controller will be expected
    to receive Bridge configuration information via the free-form
    POSTMESSAGE protocol from Proposal 197, validate that information,
    and hold that information for user approval.
 3. BridgeFinder
    A BridgeFinder is a program that discovers bridges and configures
    Tor to use them.
    In initial implementations, it is likely to be very dumb, and its main
    purpose will be to serve as a layer of abstraction that should free
    the Primary Controller from having to directly implement numerous ways
    of retrieving bridges for various pluggable transports.
    In later implementations, it may perform arbitrary network operations
    to discover, authenticate to, and/or verify bridges, possibly using
    informational hints provided by one or more external
    BridgeFinderHelpers (see next component). It could even go so far as
    to download new pluggable transport plugins and/or transform
    definition files from arbitrary urls.
    It will be launched by the Primary Controller and given access to the
    Tor Control Port via the environment variables TOR_CONTROL_PORT and
    Initial control port interactions can be command driven via GETINFO
    and SETCONF, and do not need to subscribe to or process control port
    events. Later implementations will use POSTMESSAGE as defined in
    Proposal 197 to pass command requests to Vidalia, which will parse
    them and ask for user confirmation before deploying them. Use of
    POSTMESSAGE may or may not require event driven operation, depending
    on POSTMESSAGE implementation status (POSTMESSAGE is designed to
    support both command and event driven operation, but it is possible 
    event driven operation will happen first).
 4. BridgeFinderHelper
    Each BridgeFinder implementation can optionally communicate with one
    or more BridgeFinderHelpers. BridgeFinderHelpers are plugins to
    external 3rd party applications that can inspect traffic, handle mime
    types, or implement protocol handlers for accepting bridge discovery
    information to pass to BridgeFinder. Example 3rd party applications
    include Chrome, World of Warcraft, QR Code readers, or simple cut
    and paste.
    Due to the arbitrary nature of sandboxing that may be present in
    various BridgeFinderHelper host applications, we do not mandate the
    exact nature of the IPC between BridgeFinder instances and external
    BridgeFinderHelper addons. However, please see the "Security Concerns:
    BridgeFinder and BridgeFinderHelper" section for common pitfalls to
 5. Tor Browser
    This is the browser the user uses with Tor. It is not useful until Tor
    is properly configured to use bridges. It fails closed.
    It is not expected to run BridgeFinderHelper plugin instances, unless
    those plugin instances exist to ensure the user always has a pool of
    working bridges available after successfully configuring an
    initial bridge. Once all bridges fail, the Tor Browser is useless.

    Any BridgeFinderHelper implementation that does run in Tor Browser
    has to take special care to avoid linkability by malicious exit nodes.
    See "Security Concerns: BridgeFinder and BridgeFinderHelper" for more
 6. Non-Tor Browser (aka BridgeFinderHelper host)
    This is the program the user uses for normal Internet activity to
    obtain bridges via a BridgeFinderHelper plugin. It does not have to be
    a browser. In advanced scenarios, this component may not be a browser
    at all, but may be a program such as World of Warcraft instead.

Incremental Deployability

  The system is designed to be incrementally deployable: Simple designs
  should be possible to develop and test immediately. The design is
  flexible enough to be easily upgraded as more advanced features become
  available from both Tor and new pluggable transports.

Initial Implementation

  In the simplest possible initial implementation, BridgeFinder will
  only discover Tor Bridges as they are deployed today. It will use the
  Tor Control Port to configure these bridges directly via the SETCONF
  command. It may or may not receive bridge information from a
  BridgeFinderHelper. In an even more degenerate case,
  BridgeFinderHelper may even be Vidalia or Orbot itself, acting upon
  user input from cut and paste.

 Initial Implementation: BridgeFinder Launch
   In the initial implementation, the Primary Controller will launch one
   or more BridgeFinders, providing control port authentication
   information to them through the environment variables TOR_CONTROL_PORT
   BridgeFinder will then directly connect to the control port and
   authenticate. Initial implementations should be able to function
   without using SETEVENTS, and instead only using command-based
   status inquiries and configuration (GETINFO and SETCONF).
 Initial Implementation: Obtaining Bridge Hint Information
   In the initial implementation, to test functionality,
   BridgeFinderHelper can simply scrape bridges directly from
   In slightly more advanced implementations, a BridgeFinderHelper
   instance may be written for use in the user's Non-Tor Browser. This
   plugin could extract bridges from images, html comments, and other
   material present in ad banners and slack space on unrelated pages.
   BridgeFinderHelper would then communicate with the appropriate
   BridgeFinder instance over an acceptable IPC mechanism. This proposal
   does not seek to specify the nature of that IPC channel (because
   BridgeFinderHelper may be arbitrarily constrained due to host
   application sandboxing), but we do make several security
   recommendations under the section "Security Concerns: BridgeFinder and
 Initial Implementation: Configuring New Bridges
   In the initial implementation, Bridge configuration will be done
   directly though the control port using the SETCONF command.
   Initial implementations will support only retrieval and configuration
   of standard Tor Bridges. These are configured using SETCONF on the Tor
   Control Port as follows:
     SETCONF Bridge="IP:ORPort [fingerprint]"

Future Implementations

  In future implementations, the system can incrementally evolve in a
  few different directions. As new pluggable transports are created, it
  is conceivable that BridgeFinder may want to download new plugin
  binaries (and/or new transport transform definition files) and
  provide them to Tor.

  Furthermore, it may prove simpler to deploy multiple concurrent
  BridgeFinder+BridgeFinderHelper pairs as opposed to adding new
  functionality to existing prototypes.
  Finally, it is desirable for BridgeFinder to obtain approval
  from the user before updating bridge configuration, especially for
  cases where BridgeFinderHelper is automatically discovering bridges
  in-band during Non-Tor activity.

  The exact mechanisms for accomplishing these improvements is
  described in the following subsections.

 Future Implementations: BridgeFinder Launch and POSTMESSAGE handshake
   The nature of the BridgeFinder launch and the environment variables
   provided is not expected to change. However, future Primary Controller
   implementations may decide to launch more than one BridgeFinder
   instance side by side.
   Additionally, to negotiate the IPC channel created by Proposal 197
   for purposes of providing user confirmation, it is recommended that
   BridgeFinder and the Primary Controller perform a handshake using
   POSTMESSAGE upon launch, to establish that all parties properly
   support the feature:
     Primary Controller: "POSTMESSAGE @all Controller wants POSTMESSAGE v1.0"
     BridgeFinder: "POSTMESSAGE @all BridgeFinder has POSTMESSAGE v1.0"
     Primary Controller: "POSTMESSAGE @all Controller expects POSTMESSAGE v1.0"
     BridgeFinder: "POSTMESSAGE @all BridgeFinder will POSTMESSAGE v1.0"
   If this 4 step handshake completes, BridgeFinder MUST only use
   POSTMESSAGE to transmit SETCONF Bridge lines (see "Future
   Implementations: Configuring New Bridges" below). If acknowledgment
   is expected, but the handshake does not complete for any reason,
   BridgeFinder should either exit or go dormant.

   To ensure that there are no race conditions for control port
   access, the Primary Controller should verify that launched
   BridgeFinder instances properly connect by using the Proposal 197
   command "GETINFO list-controllers" prior to initiating the handshake.

   Also, for the near future, it is the responsibility of the Primary
   Controller to avoid launching new BridgeFinder instances before the
   handshake with previous instances completes. Once the CONTROLLERNAME
   and POSTMESSAGE SourceControllerIDs portions of Proposal 197 are fully
   implemented, it will be possible to support concurrent handshakes by
   tracking the SourceControllerID property, if it is so desired.

   The exact nature of the version negotiation and exactly how much
   backwards compatibility should be tolerated is unspecified.
   "All-or-nothing" is a safe assumption to get started.

   The version negotiation should be specified completely before anyone
   tries to implement it, however.
 Future Implementations: Obtaining Bridge Hint Information
   Future BridgeFinder implementations may download additional
   information based on what is provided by BridgeFinderHelper. They
   may fetch pluggable transport plugins, transformation parameters,
   and other material.
 Future Implementations: Configuring New Bridges
   Future implementations will be concerned with providing two new pieces
   of functionality with respect to configuring bridges: configuring
   pluggable transports, and properly prompting the user before altering
   Tor configuration.
   There are two ways to tell Tor clients about pluggable transports
   (as defined in Proposal 180).
   On the control port, an external Proposal 180 transport will be
   configured with
     SETCONF ClientTransportPlugin="<method> socks5 <addr:port> [auth=X]"
   as in
     SETCONF ClientTransportPlugin="trebuchet socks5".
   A managed proxy is configured with
     SETCONF ClientTransportPlugin="<methods> exec <path> [options]"
   as in
     SETCONF ClientTransportPlugin="trebuchet exec /usr/libexec/trebuchet --managed".
   This example tells Tor to launch an external program to provide a
   socks proxy for 'trebuchet' connections. The Tor client only
   launches one instance of each external program with a given set of
   options, even if the same executable and options are listed for
   more than one method.
   Pluggable transport bridges discovered for this transport by
   BridgeFinder would then be set with:
     SETCONF Bridge="trebuchet keyid=42 rocks=2 height=5.6m".

   For more information on pluggable transports and supporting Tor
   configuration commands, see Proposal 180.
 Future Implementations: POSTMESSAGE and User Confirmation
   Because configuring even normal bridges alone can expose the user to
   attacks, it is strongly desired to provide some mechanism to allow
   the user to approve new bridges prior to their use, especially for
   situations where BridgeFinderHelper is extracting them transparently
   while the user performs unrelated activity.
   If BridgeFinderHelper grows to the point where it is downloading new
   transform definitions or plugins, user confirmation becomes
   absolutely required.
   To achieve user confirmation, we depend upon the POSTMESSAGE command
   defined in Proposal 197. 
   If the POSTMESSAGE handshake succeeds, instead of sending SETCONF
   commands directly to the control port, the commands will be wrapped
   inside a POSTMESSAGE:
     POSTMESSAGE @all SETCONF Bridge="www.example.com:8284"
   Upon receiving this POSTMESSAGE, the Primary Controller will
   validate it, evaluate it, store it to be later enabled by the
   user, and alert the user that new bridges are available for
   approval. It is only after the user has approved the new bridges
   that the Primary Controller should then re-issue the SETCONF commands
   to configure and deploy them in the tor client.
   Additionally, see "Security Concerns: Primary Controller" for more
   discussion on potential pitfalls with POSTMESSAGE.

Security Concerns

  While automatic bridge discovery and configuration is quite compelling
  and powerful, there are several serious security concerns that warrant
  extreme care. We've broken them down by component.
 Security Concerns: Primary Controller
   In the initial implementation, Orbot and Vidalia MUST take care to
   transmit the Tor Control password to BridgeFinder in such a way that
   it does not end up in system logs, process list, or viewable by other
   system users. The best known strategy for doing this is by passing the
   information through exported environment variables.
   Additionally, in future implementations, Orbot and Vidalia will need
   to validate Proposal 197 POSTMESSAGE input before prompting the user.
   POSTMESSAGE is a free-form message-passing mechanism. All sorts of
   unexpected input may be passed through it by any other authenticated
   Tor Controllers for their own unrelated communication purposes.

   Minimal validation includes verifying that the POSTMESSAGE data is a
   valid Bridge or ClientTransportPlugin line and is acceptable input for
   SETCONF. All unexpected characters should be removed through using a
   whitelist, and format and structure should be checked against a
   regular expression. Additionally, the POSTMESSAGE string should not be
   passed through any string processing engines that automatically decode
   character escape encodings, to avoid arbitrary control port execution.
   At the same time, POSTMESSAGE validation should be light. While fully
   untrusted input is not expected due to the need for control port
   authentication and BridgeFinder sanitation, complicated manual string
   parsing techniques during validation should be avoided. Perform simple
   easy-to-verify whitelist-based checks, and ignore unrecognized input.
   Beyond POSTMESSAGE validation, the manner in which the Primary
   Controller achieves consent from the user is absolutely crucial to
   security under this scheme. A simple "OK/Cancel" dialog is
   insufficient to protect the user from the dangers of switching
   bridges and running new plugins automatically.
   Newly discovered bridge lines from POSTMESSAGE should be added to a
   disabled set that the user has to navigate to as an independent window
   apart from any confirmation dialog. The user will then explicitly
   enable recently added plugins by checking them off individually. We
   need the user's brain to be fully engaged and aware that it is
   interacting with Tor during this step.  If they get an "OK/Cancel"
   popup that interrupts their online game play, they will almost
   certainly simply click "OK" just to get back to the game quickly.
   The Primary Controller should transmit the POSTMESSAGE content to the
   control port only after obtaining this out-of-band approval.
   Additionally, the Primary Controller MUST NOT store any unapproved
   BridgeFinder data on disk until such time as the user is able to
   either accept or reject it.

   Finally, in the event that multiple BridgeFinderHelper plugins are
   to be deployed concurrently using the same BridgeFinder, a proposal
   should be written to introduce a POSTMESSAGE mechanism for
   BridgeFinderHelper attribution, so that the user is able to see
   which BridgeFinderHelper provided which bridges at which time in
   the Primary Controller UI. Up until that point, the POSTMESSAGE
   SourceControllerID property (set using the CONTROLLERNAME command)
   can be used to attribute bridges to a particular BridgeFinder

Security Concerns: BridgeFinder and BridgeFinderHelper

  The unspecified nature of the IPC channel between BridgeFinder and
  BridgeFinderHelper makes it difficult to make concrete security
  suggestions. However, from past experience, the following best
  practices MUST be employed to avoid security vulnerabilities:

  1. Define a non-webby handshake and/or perform authentication

     The biggest risk is that unexpected applications will be manipulated
     into posting malformed data to the BridgeFinder's IPC channel as if it
     were from BridgeFinderHelper. The best way to defend against this is
     to require a handshake to properly complete before accepting input. If
     the handshake fails at any point, the IPC channel MUST be abandoned
     and closed. Do not continue scanning for good input after any bad
     input has been encountered.
     Additionally, if possible, it is wise to establish a shared secret
     between BridgeFinder and BridgeFinderHelper through the filesystem or
     any other means available for use in authentication. For an a good
     example on how to use such a shared secret properly for
     authentication, see Trac Ticket #5185 and/or the SafeCookie Tor
     Control Port authentication mechanism.

  2. Perform validation before parsing 

     Care has to be taken before converting BridgeFinderHelper data into
     Bridge lines, especially for cases where the BridgeFinderHelper data
     is fed directly to the control port after passing through

     In specific, the input MUST be subjected to a character whitelist
     and should also be validated against a regular expression to verify
     format, and if any unexpected or poorly-formed data is encountered,
     the IPC channel MUST be closed.

  3. Fail closed on unexpected input

     If the handshake fails, or if any other part of the BridgeFinderHelper
     input is invalid, the IPC channel must be abandoned and closed. Do
     *not* continue scanning for good input after any bad input has been

  4. Exercise care with disk activity

     If transport plugins or definition/configuration files are to be
     downloaded, the BridgeFinder MUST ensure that they are only written to
     a known, controlled subdirectory of the Tor Browser Bundle, and with
     predictable extensions and properly applied permissions.

     In particular, BridgeFinder MUST NOT create files with (entirely or
     partially) attacker-controlled contents or files with
     attacker-controlled names or file extensions.

  5. Exercise care when operating from within Tor Browser

     Any BridgeFinderHelper operating from within Tor Browser MUST NOT
     use the same passive side-channel and/or steganographic techniques
     employed by the Non-Tor BridgeFinderHelper, as these types of
     techniques can be (ab)used by malicious exit nodes to deanonymize
     users by feeding them specific, malicious bridges.

     Any bridge discovery performed from within Tor Browser MUST be active
     in nature (with bridge sources fully controlled by BridgeFinderHelper)
     and MUST be authenticated (via TLS+cert pinning and/or HMAC).

     Further, a BridgeFinder or BridgeFinderHelper MAY make its own
     connections through Tor for the purpose of finding new bridge
     addresses (or updating previously acquired addresses), but MUST use
     Tor's stream isolation feature to separate BridgeFinder streams from
     the user's anonymous/pseudonymous activities.

Mike Perry
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