[tor-dev] Proposal: Tuning the Parameters for the Path Bias Defense

Mike Perry mikeperry at torproject.org
Thu Oct 11 09:20:57 UTC 2012

Also exists at


Title: Tuning the Parameters for the Path Bias Defense
Author: Mike Perry
Created: 01-10-2012
Status: Open
Target: 0.2.4.x+


 This proposal describes how we can use the results of simulations in
 combination with network scans to set reasonable limits for the Path
 Bias defense, which causes clients to be informed about and ideally
 rotate away from Guards that provide extremely low circuit success


 The Path Bias defense is designed to defend against a type of route capture
 where malicious Guard nodes deliberately fail circuits that extend to
 non-colluding Exit nodes to maximize their network utilization in favor of
 carrying only compromised traffic.

 This attack was explored in the academic literature in [1], and a
 variant involving cryptographic tagging was posted to tor-dev[2] in

 In the extreme, the attack allows an adversary that carries c/n
 of the network capacity to deanonymize c/n of the network
 connections, breaking the O((c/n)^2) property of Tor's original
 threat model.

Design Description

 The Path Bias defense is a client-side accounting mechanism in Tor that
 tracks the circuit failure rate for each of the client's guards.

 Clients maintain two integers for each of their guards: a count of the
 number of times a circuit was extended at least one hop through that
 guard, and a count of the number of circuits that successfully complete
 through that guard. The ratio of these two numbers is used to determine
 a circuit success rate for that Guard.

 The system should issue a notice log message when Guard success rate
 falls below 70%, a warn when Guard success rate falls below 50%, and
 should drop the Guard when the success rate falls below 30%.

 To ensure correctness, checks are performed to ensure that
 we do not count successes without also counting the first hop.

 Similarly, to provide a moving average of recent Guard activity while
 still preserving the ability to ensure correctness, we "scale" the
 success counts by an integer divisor (currently 2) when the counts
 exceed the moving average window (300) and when the division
 does not produce integer truncation.

 No log messages should be displayed, nor should any Guard be
 dropped until it has completed at least 150 first hops (inclusive).

Analysis: Simulation

 To test the defense in the face of various types of malicious and
 non-malicious Guard behavior, I wrote a simulation program in

 The simulation confirmed that without any defense, an adversary
 that provides c/n of the network capacity is able to observe c/n
 of the network flows using circuit failure attacks.

 It also showed that with the defense, an adversary that wishes to
 evade detection has compromise rates bounded by:

   P(compromise) <= (c/n)^2 * (100/CUTOFF_PERCENT)
   circs_per_client <= circuit_attempts*(c/n)

 In this way, the defense restores the O((c/n)^2) compromise property,
 but unfortunately only over long periods of time (see Security
 Considerations below).

 The spread between the cutoff values and the normal rate of circuit
 success has a substantial effect on false positives. From the
 simulation's results, the sweet spot for the size of this spread appears
 to be 10%. In other words, we want to set the cutoffs such that they are
 10% below the success rate we expect to see in normal usage.

 The simulation also demonstrates that larger "scaling window" sizes
 reduce false positives for instances where non-malicious guards
 experience some ambient rate of circuit failure.

Analysis: Live Scan

 Preliminary Guard node scanning using the txtorcon circuit scanner[4]
 shows normal circuit completion rates between 80-90% for most Guard
 However, it also showed that CPU overload conditions can easily push
 success rates as low as 45%. Even more concerning is that for a brief
 period during the live scan, success rates dropped to 50-60%
 network-wide (regardless of Guard node choice).

 Based on these results, the notice condition should be 70%, the warn 
 condition should be 50%, and the drop condition should be 30%.

Future Analysis: Deployed Clients

 It's my belief that further analysis should be done by deploying 
 loglines for all three thresholds in clients in the live network
 to utilize user reports on how often high rates of circuit failure
 are seen before we deploy changes to rotate away from failing Guards.

 I believe these log lines should be deployed in 0.2.3.x clients,
 to maximize the exposure of the code to varying network conditions,
 so that we have enough data to consider deploying the Guard-dropping
 cutoff in 0.2.4.x.

Security Considerations

 While the scaling window does provide freshness and can help mitigate
 "bait-and-switch" attacks, it also creates the possibility of conditions
 where clients can be forced off their Guards due to temporary
 network-wide CPU DoS. This provides another reason beyond false positive
 concerns to set the scaling window as large as is reasonable.

 A DoS directed at specific Guard nodes is unlikely to allow an
 adversary to cause clients to rotate away from that Guard, because it
 is unlikely that the DoS can be precise enough to allow first hops to
 that Guard to succeed, but also cause extends to fail. This leaves
 network-wide DoS as the primary vector for influencing clients.

 Simulation results show that in order to cause clients to rotate away
 from a Guard node that previously succeeded 80% of its circuits, an
 adversary would need to induce a 25% success rate for around 350 circuit
 attempts before the client would reject it, or a 5% success rate
 for around 215 attempts, both using a scaling window of 300 circuits.
 Assuming one circuit per Guard per 10 minutes of active client
 activity, this is a sustained network-wide DoS attack of 60 hours
 for the 25% case, or 38 hours for the 5% case.

 Presumably this is enough time for the directory authorities to respond by
 altering the pb_disablepct consensus parameter before clients rotate,
 especially given that most clients are not active for even 38 hours on end,
 and will tend to stop building circuits while idle.

 If we raised the scaling window to 500 circuits, it would require 1050
 circuits if the DoS brought circuit success down to 25% (175 hours), and
 415 circuits if the DoS brought the circuit success down to 5% (69 hours).

 The tradeoff, though, is that larger scaling window values allow Guard nodes
 to compromise clients for duty cycles of around the size of this window (up to
 the (c/n)^2 * 100/CUTOFF_PERCENT limit in aggregate), so we do have to find
 balance between these concerns.

Implementation Notes: Log Messages

 Log messages need to be chosen with care to avoid alarming users.
 I suggest:

 Notice: "Your Guard %s is failing more circuits than usual. Most likely
 this means the Tor network is overloaded. Success counts are %d/%d."

 Warn: "Your Guard %s is failing a very large amount of circuits. Most likely
 this means the Tor network is overloaded, but it could also mean an attack
 against you or potentially the Guard itself. Success counts are %d/%d."

 Drop: "Your Guard %s is failing an extremely large amount of circuits. [Tor
 has disabled use of this Guard.] Success counts are %d/%d."

 The second piece of the Drop message would not be present in 0.2.3.x,
 since the Guard won't actually be dropped.

Implementation Notes: Consensus Parameters

 The following consensus parameters reflect the constants listed
 in the proposal. These parameters should also be available 
 for override in torrc.

   The minimum number of first hops before we log or drop Guards.

   The threshold of circuit success below which we display a notice.

   The threshold of circuit success below which we display a warn.

   The threshold of circuit success below which we disable the guard.

   The number of first hops at which we scale the counts down.

   The integer divisor by which we scale.

1. http://freehaven.net/anonbib/cache/ccs07-doa.pdf
2. https://lists.torproject.org/pipermail/tor-dev/2012-March/003347.html
3. https://gitweb.torproject.org/torflow.git/tree/HEAD:/CircuitAnalysis/PathBias
4. https://github.com/meejah/txtorcon/blob/exit_scanner/apps/exit_scanner/failure-rate-scanner.py

Mike Perry
-------------- next part --------------
A non-text attachment was scrubbed...
Name: signature.asc
Type: application/pgp-signature
Size: 198 bytes
Desc: Digital signature
URL: <http://lists.torproject.org/pipermail/tor-dev/attachments/20121011/db023f02/attachment.pgp>

More information about the tor-dev mailing list