[tor-dev] Proposal: The move to two guard nodes

Mike Perry mikeperry at torproject.org
Sat Mar 31 06:52:51 UTC 2018

In-line below for ease of comment. Also available at:


Filename: xxx-two-guard-nodes.txt
Title: The move to two guard nodes
Author: Mike Perry
Created: 2018-03-22
Supersedes: Proposal 236

0. Background

  Back in 2014, Tor moved from three guard nodes to one guard node[1,2,3].

  We made this change primarily to limit points of observability of entry
  into the Tor network for clients and onion services, as well as to
  reduce the ability of an adversary to track clients as they move from
  one internet connection to another by their choice of guards.

1. Proposed changes

1.1. Switch to two guards per client

  When this proposal becomes effective, clients will switch to using
  two guard nodes. The guard node selection algorithms of Proposal 271
  will remain unchanged. Instead of having one primary guard "in use",
  Tor clients will always use two.

  This will be accomplished by setting the guard-n-primary-guards-to-use
  consensus parameter to 2, as well as guard-n-primary-guards to 2.
  (Section 3.1 covers the reason for both parameters). This is equivalent
  to using the torrc option NumEntryGuards=2, which can be used for
  testing behavior prior to the consensus update.

1.2. Enforce Tor's path restrictions across this guard layer

  In order to ensure that Tor can always build circuits using two guards
  without resorting to a third, they must be chosen such that Tor's path
  restrictions could still build a path with at least one of them,
  regardless of the other nodes in the path.

  In other words, we must ensure that both guards are not chosen from the
  same /16 or the same node family. In this way, Tor will always be able to
  build a path using these guards, preventing the use of a third guard.

2. Discussion

2.1. Why two guards?

  The main argument for switching to two guards is that because of Tor's
  path restrictions, we're already using two guards, but we're using them
  in a suboptimal and potentially dangerous way.

  Tor's path restrictions enforce the condition that the same node cannot
  appear twice in the same circuit, nor can nodes from the same /16 subnet
  or node family be used in the same circuit.

  Tor's paths are also built such that the exit node is chosen first and
  held fixed during guard node choice, as are the IP, HSDIR, and RPs for
  onion services. This means that whenever one of these nodes happens to
  be the guard[4], or be in the same /16 or node family as the guard, Tor
  will build that circuit using a second "primary" guard, as per proposal

  Worse still, the choice of RP, IP, and exit can all be controlled by an
  adversary (to varying degrees), enabling them to force the use of a
  second guard at will.

  Because this happens somewhat infrequently in normal operation, a fresh
  TLS connection will typically be created to the second "primary" guard,
  and that TLS connection will be used only for the circuit for that
  particular request. This property makes all sorts of traffic analysis
  attacks easier, because this TLS connection will not benefit from any

  This is more serious than traffic injection via an already in-use
  guard because the lack of multiplexing means that the data retention
  level required to gain information from this activity is very low, and
  may exist for other reasons. To gain information from this behavior, an
  adversary needs only connection 5-tuples + timestamps, as opposed to
  detailed timeseries data that is polluted by other concurrent activity
  and padding.

  In the most severe form of this attack, the adversary can take a suspect
  list of Tor client IP addresses (or the list of all Guard node IP addresses)
  and observe when secondary Tor connections are made to them at the time when
  they cycle through all guards as RPs for connections to an onion
  service. This adversary does not require collusion on the part of observers
  beyond the ability to provide 5-tuple connection logs (which ISPs may retain
  for reasons such as netflow accounting, IDS, or DoS protection systems).

  A fully passive adversary can also make use of this behavior. Clients
  unlucky enough to pick guard nodes in heavily used /16s or in large node
  families will tend to make use of a second guard more frequently even
  without effort from the adversary. In these cases, the lack of
  multiplexing also means that observers along the path to this secondary
  guard gain more information per observation.

2.2. Why not MOAR guards?

  We do not want to increase the number of observation points for client
  activity into the Tor network[1]. We merely want better multiplexing for
  the cases where this already happens.

2.3. Can you put some numbers on that?

  The Changing of the Guards[13] paper studies this from a few different
  angles, but one of the crucially missing graphs is how long a client
  can expect to run with N guards before it chooses a malicious guard.

  However, we do have tables in section 3.2.1 of proposal 247 that cover
  this[14]. There are three tables there: one for a 1% adversary, one for
  a 5% adversary, and one for a 10% adversary. You can see the probability
  of adversary success for one and two guards in terms of the number of
  rotations needed before the adversary's node is chosen. Not surprisingly,
  the two guard adversary gets to compromise clients roughly twice as
  quickly, but the timescales are still rather large even for the 10%
  adversary: they only have 50% chance of success after 4 rotations, which
  will take about 14 months with Tor's 3.5 month guard rotation.

2.4. What about guard fingerprinting?

  More guards also means more fingerprinting[8]. However, even one guard
  may be enough to fingerprint a user who moves around in the same area,
  if that guard is low bandwidth or there are not many Tor users in that

  Furthermore, our use of separate directory guards (and three of them)
  means that we're not really changing the situation much with the
  addition of another regular guard. Right now, directory guard use alone
  is enough to track all Tor users across the entire world.

  While the directory guard problem could be fixed[12] (and should be
  fixed), it is still the case that another mechanism should be used for
  the general problem of guard-vs-location management[9].

3. Alternatives

  There are two other solutions that also avoid the use of secondary guard
  in the path restriction case.

3.1. Eliminate path restrictions entirely

  If Tor decided to stop enforcing /16, node family, and also allowed the
  guard node to be chosen twice in the path, then under normal conditions,
  it should retain the use of its primary guard.

  This approach is not as extreme as it seems on face. In fact, it is hard
  to come up with arguments against removing these restrictions. Tor's
  /16 restriction is of questionable utility against monitoring, and it can
  be argued that since only good actors use node family, it gives influence
  over path selection to bad actors in ways that are worse than the benefit
  it provides to paths through good actors[10,11].

  However, while removing path restrictions will solve the immediate
  problem, it will not address other instances where Tor temporarily opts
  use a second guard due to congestion, OOM, or failure of its primary
  guard, and we're still running into bugs where this can be adversarially
  controlled or just happen randomly[5].

  While using two guards means twice the surface area for these types of
  bugs, it also means that instances where they happen simultaneously on
  both guards (thus forcing a third guard) are much less likely than with
  just one guard. (In the passive adversary model, consider that one guard
  fails at any point with probability P1. If we assume that such passive
  failures are independent events, both guards would fail concurrently
  with probability P1*P2. Even if the events are correlated, the maximum
  chance of concurrent failure is still MIN(P1,P2)).

  Note that for this analysis to hold, we have to ensure that nodes that
  are at RESOURCELIMIT or otherwise temporarily unresponsive do not cause
  us to consider other primary guards beyond than the two we have chosen.
  This is accomplished by setting guard-n-primary-guards to 2 (in addition
  to setting guard-n-primary-guards-to-use to 2). With this parameter
  set, the proposal 271 algorithm will avoid considering more than our two
  guards, unless *both* are down at once.

3.2. No Guard-flagged nodes as exit, RP, IP, or HSDIRs

  Similar to 3.1, we could instead forbid the use of Guard-flagged nodes
  for the exit, IP, RP, and HSDIR positions.

  This solution has two problems: First, like 3.1, it also does not handle
  the case where resource exhaustion could force the use of a second
  guard. Second, it requires clients to upgrade to the new behavior and
  stop using Guard flagged nodes before it can be deployed.

4. The future is confluxed

  An additional benefit of using a second guard is that it enables us to
  eventually use conflux[6].

  Conflux works by giving circuits a 256bit cookie that is sent to the
  exit/RP, and circuits that are then built to the same exit/RP with the
  same cookie can then be fused together. Throughput estimates are used to
  balance traffic between these circuits, depending on their performance.

  We have unfortunately signaled to the research community that conflux is
  not worth pursuing, because of our insistence on a single guard. While
  not relevant to this proposal (indeed, conflux requires its own proposal
  and also concurrent research), it is worth noting that whichever way we
  go here, the door remains open to conflux because of its utility against
  similar issues.

  If our conflux implementation includes packet acking, then circuits can
  still survive the loss of one guard node due to DoS, OOM, or other
  failures because the second half of the path will remain open and
  usable (see the probability of concurrent failure arguments in Section

  If exits remember this cookie for a short period of time after the last
  circuit is closed, the technique can be used to protect against
  DoS/OOM/guard downtime conditions that take down both guard nodes or
  destroy many circuits to confirm both guard node choices. In these
  cases, circuits could be rebuilt along an alternate path and resumed
  without end-to-end circuit connectivity loss. This same technique will
  also make things like ephemeral bridges (ie Snowflake/Flashproxy) more
  usable, because bridge uptime will no longer be so crucial to usability.
  It will also improve mobile usability by allowing us to resume
  connections after mobile Tor apps are briefly suspended, or if the user
  switches between cell and wifi networks.

  Furthermore, it is likely that conflux will also be useful against traffic
  analysis and congestion attacks. Since the load balancing is dynamic and
  hard to predict by an external observer and also increases overall
  traffic multiplexing, traffic correlation and website traffic
  fingerprinting attacks will become harder, because the adversary can no
  longer be sure what percentage of the traffic they have seen (depending
  on their position and other potential concurrent activity).  Similarly,
  it should also help dampen congestion attacks, since traffic will
  automatically shift away from a congested guard.


1. https://blog.torproject.org/improving-tors-anonymity-changing-guard-parameters
2. https://trac.torproject.org/projects/tor/ticket/12206
3. https://gitweb.torproject.org/torspec.git/tree/proposals/236-single-guard-node.txt
4. https://trac.torproject.org/projects/tor/ticket/14917
5. https://trac.torproject.org/projects/tor/ticket/25347#comment:14
6. https://www.cypherpunks.ca/~iang/pubs/conflux-pets.pdf
7. https://gitweb.torproject.org/torspec.git/tree/proposals/271-another-guard-selection.txt
8. https://trac.torproject.org/projects/tor/ticket/9273#comment:3
9. https://tails.boum.org/blueprint/persistent_Tor_state/
10. https://trac.torproject.org/projects/tor/ticket/6676#comment:3
11. https://bugs.torproject.org/15060
12. https://trac.torproject.org/projects/tor/ticket/10969
13. https://www.freehaven.net/anonbib/cache/wpes12-cogs.pdf
14. https://gitweb.torproject.org/torspec.git/tree/proposals/247-hs-guard-discovery.txt#n179

Mike Perry
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