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The Tor Project
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Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security known as traffic analysis.

The Tor Project is a 501(c)3 organization.

Latest News

Jul 23, 2014

Welcome to the twenty-ninth issue of Tor Weekly News in 2014, the weekly newsletter that covers what is happening in the Tor community.

Tails 1.1 is out!

Tails, the Debian-based live system that protects its users’ communications by ensuring they are all sent through the Tor network, has been updated. This new 1.1 release reminds Tails users of the distribution’s roots in Debian: Tails is now based on the current stable version of Debian, dubbed “Wheezy”.

This means that almost all software components have been updated. One noticeable example is the desktop environment. The user experience of the GNOME 3 in fallback mode should be similar to previous Tails versions, but things will look a bit differently than they used to.

One of the most keenly-awaited features of this new version is the support for UEFI firmware. Mac users now have only to press the Alt key while booting their computer to start Tails from a DVD or USB stick. The same goes for owners of computers displaying “Windows 8” stickers. And, talking of Windows 8, the camouflage mode has been updated to look more like it, instead of the now discontinued XP.

This new release also contains security fixes, and minor tweaks over the previous versions.

Because of the newly-introduced support for UEFI and the amount of upgraded software, incremental upgrades will not be offered for Tails 1.1. A full upgrade is needed through the Tails Installer. The safest method for upgrading Tails sticks is to go through a freshly burned DVD. Be sure to have a look at the list of known issues to learn about other oddities that might happen in the process.

PETS 2014

The fourteenth Privacy Enhancing Technologies Symposium was held in Amsterdam, Netherlands, July 16-18, 2014. A wide range of research in privacy enhancing technologies was presented, with many of relevance to Tor. Keynotes were given by Martin Ortlieb, Senior User Experience Researcher in Privacy at Google, and William Binney, a former NSA employee.

Some papers focusing on Tor include:

Also announced at PETS was the 2014 PET Award for Outstanding Research in Privacy Enhancing Technologies, for A Scanner Darkly: Protecting User Privacy From Perceptual Applications by Suman Jana, Arvind Narayanan†, and Vitaly Shmatikov. The winner of the best student paper at PETS was I Know Why You Went to the Clinic: Risks and Realization of HTTPS Traffic Analysis by Brad Miller, Ling Huang, A. D. Joseph and J. D. Tygar .

Prior to PETS, there was a Tor meet-up which Moritz Bartl reported as a great success. Hopefully there will also be such an event at the 2015 PETS, to be held in Philadelphia, US, in the week of June 29, 2015.

Miscellaneous news

txtorcon, the Tor control protocol implementation for the Twisted framework, received a new minor release. Version 0.10.1 fixes “a couple bugs introduced along with the endpoints feature in 0.10.0”.

Roger Dingledine posted an official reaction to the cancellation of a proposed talk at the upcoming Blackhat2014 conference dealing with possible deanonymization attacks on Tor users and hidden services.

Tor ships with a sample webpage that can be used by exit node operators to identify their system as such to anyone wishing to identify the source of Tor traffic. Operators most often copy and adapt this template to the local situation. Mick Morgan discovered than his version was out of sync and contained broken links. “If other operators are similarly using a page based on the old template, they may wish to update”, Mick advised.

Michael Rogers, one of the developers of Briar, announced a new mailing list for discussing peer-to-peer-based communication systems based on Tor hidden services. As Briar and other systems might be “running into similar issues”, a shared place to discuss them seemed worthwhile.

Karsten Loesing and Philipp Winter are looking for front-end web developers: “We are looking for somebody to fork and extend one of the two main Tor network status websites Atlas or Globe” writes Karsten. Both websites currently need love and new maintainers. Please reach out if you want to help!

The database which holds Tor bridges, usually called BridgeDB, is able to give out bridge addresses through email. This feature was recently extended to make the email autoresponder support more bridge types, which required introducing new keywords that must be used in the initial request. Matthew Finkel is looking for feedback on the current set of commands and how they could be improved.

Lunar wrote a detailed report on his week at the Libre Software Meeting in Montpellier, France. The report covers the booth jointly held with Nos Oignons, his talk in the security track, and several contacts made with other free software projects.

Here’s another round of reports from Google Summer of Code students: the mid-term: Amogh Pradeep on Orbot and Orfox improvements, Israel Leiva on the GetTor revamp, Quinn Jarrell on the pluggable transport combiner, Juha Nurmi on the ahmia.fi project, Marc Juarez on website fingerprinting defenses, and Daniel Martí on incremental updates to consensus documents.

Tim Retout announced that apt-transport-tor 0.2.1 has entered Debian unstable. This package enables APT to download Debian packages through Tor.

Atlas can now also be used to search for Tor bridges. In the past, Atlas was only able to search for relays. This was made possible thanks to a patch developed by Dmitry Eremin-Solenikov.

Thanks to Tim Semeijn and Tobias Bauer for setting up new mirrors of the Tor Project’s website and its software.

Tor help desk roundup

Some Linux users have experienced missing dependency errors when trying to install Tor Browser from their operating system’s software repositories. Tor Browser should only be installed from the Tor Project’s website, and never from a software repository. In other words, using apt-get or yum to install Tor Browser is discouraged. Downloading and verifying Tor Browser from the Tor Project website allows users to keep up with important security updates as they are released.

News from Tor StackExchange

user3224 wants to log in to its Google, Microsoft etc. accounts and wonders if they will know the real name and other personal information. Roya and mirimir explained that if someone logs into an already personalized account Tor can’t anonymize this user. Instead it might be wise to use Tor to register a pseudonym and also use an anonymous operating system like Tails or Whonix.

escapologybb has set up a Raspberry Pi. It serves as SOCKS proxy for the internal network. While everyone can use it, escapologybb asks what the security implications are and if this lowers the overall anonymity. If you know a good answer please share your knowledge with the users of Tor StackExchange.


This issue of Tor Weekly News has been assembled by Lunar, Steven Murdoch, harmony, Philipp Winter, Matt Pagan, qbi, and Karsten Loesing.

Want to continue reading TWN? Please help us create this newsletter. We still need more volunteers to watch the Tor community and report important news. Please see the project page, write down your name and subscribe to the team mailing list if you want to get involved!

Jul 22, 2014

Tails, The Amnesic Incognito Live System, version 1.1, is out.

All users must upgrade as soon as possible: this release fixes numerous security issues.

Changes

Notable user-visible changes include:

  • Rebase on Debian Wheezy
    • Upgrade literally thousands of packages.
    • Migrate to GNOME3 fallback mode.
    • Install LibreOffice instead of OpenOffice.
  • Major new features
    • UEFI boot support, which should make Tails boot on modern hardware and Mac computers.
    • Replace the Windows XP camouflage with a Windows 8 camouflage.
    • Bring back VirtualBox guest modules, installed from Wheezy backports. Full functionality is only available when using the 32-bit kernel.
  • Security fixes
    • Fix write access to boot medium via udisks (ticket #6172).
    • Upgrade the web browser to 24.7.0esr-0+tails1~bpo70+1 (Firefox 24.7.0esr + Iceweasel patches + Torbrowser patches).
    • Upgrade to Linux 3.14.12-1 (fixes CVE-2014-4699).
    • Make persistent file permissions safer (ticket #7443).
  • Bugfixes
    • Fix quick search in Tails Greeter's Other languages window (Closes: ticket #5387)
  • Minor improvements
    • Don't install Gobby 0.4 anymore. Gobby 0.5 has been available in Debian since Squeeze, now is a good time to drop the obsolete 0.4 implementation.
    • Require a bit less free memory before checking for upgrades with Tails Upgrader. The general goal is to avoid displaying "Not enough memory available to check for upgrades" too often due to over-cautious memory requirements checked in the wrapper.
    • Whisperback now sanitizes attached logs better with respect to DMI data, IPv6 addresses, and serial numbers (ticket #6797, ticket #6798, ticket #6804).
    • Install the BookletImposer PDF imposition toolkit.

See the online Changelog for technical details.

Known issues

I want to try it or to upgrade!

Go to the download page.

Note that for this release there are some special actions needed when upgrading from ISO and automatically upgrading from Tails 1.1~rc1.

What's coming up?

The next Tails release is scheduled for September 2.

Have a look to our roadmap to see where we are heading to.

Would you want to help? There are many ways you can contribute to Tails. If you want to help, come talk to us!

Support and feedback

For support and feedback, visit the Support section on the Tails website.

Jul 21, 2014

As posted by Roger on the Tor-Talk mailing list:

Hi folks,

Journalists are asking us about the Black Hat talk on attacking Tor that got cancelled. We're still working with CERT to do a coordinated disclosure of the details (hopefully this week), but I figured I should share a few details with you earlier than that.

1) We did not ask Black Hat or CERT to cancel the talk. We did (and still do) have questions for the presenter and for CERT about some aspects of the research, but we had no idea the talk would be pulled before the announcement was made.

2) In response to our questions, we were informally shown some materials. We never received slides or any description of what would be presented in the talk itself beyond what was available on the Black Hat Webpage.

3) We encourage research on the Tor network along with responsible disclosure of all new and interesting attacks. Researchers who have told us about bugs in the past have found us pretty helpful in fixing issues, and generally positive to work with.

Jul 17, 2014

Hello front-end web developers!

We are looking for somebody to fork and extend one of the two main Tor network status websites Atlas or Globe.

Here's some background: both the Atlas and the Globe website use the Onionoo service as their data back-end and make that data accessible to mere humans. The Onionoo service is maintained by Karsten. Atlas was written by Arturo as proof-of-concept for the Onionoo service and later maintained (but not extended) by Philipp. Globe was forked from Atlas by Christian who improved and maintained it for half a year, but who unfortunately disappeared a couple of weeks ago. That leaves us with no actively maintained network status website, which is bad.

Want to help out?

Here's how: Globe has been criticized for having too much whitespace, which makes it less useful on smaller screens. But we hear that the web technology behind Globe is superior to the one behind Atlas (we're no front-end web experts, so we can't say for sure). A fine next step could be to fork Globe and tidy up its design to work better on smaller screens. And there are plenty of steps after that if you look through the tickets in the Globe and Atlas component of our bug tracker. Be sure to present your fork on the tor-dev@ mailing list early to get feedback. You can just run it on your own server for now.

The long-term goal would be to have one or more people working on a new network status website to replace Atlas and Globe. We'd like to wait with that step until such a new website is maintained for a couple of weeks or even months though. And even then, we may keep Atlas and Globe running for a couple more months. But eventually, we'd like to shut them down in favor of an actively maintained website.

Let us know if you're interested, and we're happy to provide more details and discuss ideas with you.

Jul 16, 2014

Welcome to the twenty-eighth issue of Tor Weekly News in 2014, the weekly newsletter that covers what is happening in the Tor community.

Roundup of research on incentives for running Tor relays

As an hors-d’œuvre to the now on-going the Privacy Enhancing Technology Symposium, Rob Jansen wrote a long blog post covering the last five years of research on incentives for running Tor relays.

Rob introduces the topic by describing the current “volunteer resource model” and mentions that “has succeeded so far: Tor now consists of over 5000 relays transferring between 4 and 5 GiB/s in aggregate”. Rob lists several possible reasons why volunteers run relays right now. They are all intrinsic motivations: current operators run relays because they really want to.

Is only relying on volunteers going to limit the growth of the Tor network in the future? There are already not-for-profit organizations operating relays based on donations, but growing them too much would also be problematic. Another area being explored are extrinsic motivations: making Tor clients faster when someone runs a relay or giving a financial reward — in a currency or another — for the service. Some can legitimately ask if they are suitable for Tor at all and Rob raises plenty of legitimate concerns on how they would interact with the current set of volunteers.

The problem keeps interesting researchers, and Rob details no less than six schemes: the oldest are PAR and Gold Star which introduced anonymity problems, BRAIDS where double spending of rewards is prevented without leaking timing information, LIRA which focused on scalability, TEARS where a publicly auditable e-cash protocol reduce the reliance on trusted parties, and finally, the (not ideally namedTorCoin which introduces the idea of a crypto-currency based on “proof-of-bandwidth”.

Rob details the novel ideas and drawbacks of each schemes, so be sure to read the original blog post for more details. After this roundup, Rob highlights that “recent research has made great improvements in the area of Tor incentives”. But that’s for the technical side as “it is unclear how to make headway on the social issues”.

“Tor has some choices to make in terms of how to grow the network and how to position the community during that growth process” concludes Rob. So let’s have that conversation.

Defending against guard discovery attacks with layered rotation time

Guard nodes are a key component of a Tor client’s anonymity. Once an attacker gains knowledge of which guard node is being used by a particular client, putting the guard node under monitoring is likely the last step before finding a client’s IP address.

George Kadianakis has restarted the discussion on how to slow down guard discovery of hidden services by exploring the idea of “keeping our middle nodes more static”. The idea is to slow down the attacks based on repeated circuit destruction by reusing the same “middle nodes for 3-4 days instead of choosing new ones for every circuit”. Introducing this new behavior will slow down the attack, but George asks “are there any serious negative implications?”

The idea is not new, as Paul Syverson pointed out: “Lasse and I suggested and explored the idea of layered guards when we introduced guards”. He adds “there are lots of possibilities here”.

George worries that middle nodes would then “always see your traffic coming through your guard (assuming a single guard per client)”. Ian Goldberg added “the exit will now know that circuits coming from the same middle are more likely to be the same client”. Restricting the change to only hidden services and not every client means that it will be “easy for an entry guard to learn whether a client has static middle nodes or not”.

As George puts it the latest message in the thread: “As always, more research is needed…” Please help!

More monthly status reports for June 2014

The wave of regular monthly reports from Tor project members for the month of June continued, with submissions from Michael Schloh von Bennewitz and Andrew Lewman.

Arturo Filastò reported on behalf of the OONI team, while Roger Dingledine submitted the SponsorF report

Miscellaneous news

The various roadmaps that came out of the 2014 summer dev. meeting have been transcribed in a joint effort by George Kadianakis, Yawning Angel, Karsten Loesing, and an anonymous person. Most items will probably be matched with a ticket soon.

The Tor Project is hiring a financial controller. This is a part time position, approximately 20 hours per week, at the office in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The Tails developers announced the creation of two new mailing lists. “If you are a designer, UX/UI expert or beginner” interested in the theory and practice of designing user interfaces for Tails, the tails-ux list is for you, while the tails-project list is dedicated to “the ‘life’ of the project“; however, “technical questions should stay on tails-dev”.

Alan kicked of the aforementioned tails-ux mailing list announcing progress on Tails initial login screen. The new set of mockups is visible on the corresponding blueprint.

More mockups! Nima Fatemi produced some for a possible browser-based Tor control panel, incorporating features that were lost with the removal of Vidalia from the Tor Browser, such as the world map with Tor circuit visualizations. “How would you perfect that image? What’s missing?”, asked Nima, hoping “to inspire people to start hacking on it”.

Meanwhile, Sean Robinson had been working on a new graphical Tor controller called Syboa. Sean’s “primary motivation for Syboa was to replace TorK, so it looks more like TorK than Vidalia”. Sean announces that he will not have time for further development soon but that he would answer questions.

Juha Nurmi submitted the weekly status report for the ahmia.fi GSoC project.

Thanks to the University of Edinburgh’s School of Informatics, funcube.fr, Stefano Fenoglio, IP-Connect, Justin Ramos, Jacob Henner from Anatomical Networks, and Hackabit.nl for running mirrors of the Tor Project website!

Tor help desk roundup

Users often ask about for assistance setting up Tor Cloud instances. Sina Rabbani is taking over the maintenance of Tor Cloud and is working on updating the packages and documentation. Until new documentation on using the up-to-date images and Amazon Web Services interface lands, users not already familiar with AWS may want to use a different virtual server provider to host their bridges.

Easy development tasks to get involved with

The setup scripts of the Flashproxy and Obfsproxy pluggable transports attempt to download and build the M2Crypto library if they are not already installed. We´d really want to avoid this and have the setup script fail if not all libraries are present for building Flashproxy. The ticket that describes this bug also outlines a possible workaround that disables all downloads during the setup process. If you know a bit about setuptools and want to turn this description into a patch and test it, please give it a try.


This issue of Tor Weekly News has been assembled by Lunar, harmony, Matt Pagan, Karsten Loesing, and George Kadianakis.

Want to continue reading TWN? Please help us create this newsletter. We still need more volunteers to watch the Tor community and report important news. Please see the project page, write down your name and subscribe to the team mailing list if you want to get involved!

Jul 14, 2014

There has been a considerable amount of work in the area of Tor incentives since the last post on the topic in 2009 (over 5 years ago!). This post will give an overview of some of the major new approaches, including two new designs that I co-authored that will appear at the Workshop on Hot Topics in Privacy Enhancing Technologies later this week. Before getting to those, I'll give background on Tor and discuss some of the social issues to help form a foundation of understanding.

Tor’s volunteer resource model

The Tor network consists of a set of relays that provide bandwidth and other resources to forward traffic for Tor users. Anyone in any part of the world can contribute to Tor by downloading the Tor software and configuring it to operate in relay mode. In fact, the Tor network is currently composed exclusively of such voluntarily-operated relays.

There are many reasons existing relay operators might contribute to Tor. They may contribute because they really want a privacy-enhancing communication tool like Tor to exist, they believe in Tor’s philosophy of open source software and operational transparency, and they want Tor to succeed at its goals. They may wish to be part of the Tor community and the social movement to provide privacy-enhanced communication that connects people in all parts of the world. Tor may be practically useful to them for communication with others or to retrieve content that may otherwise be unavailable to them due to censorship or other network interference. Or they may be technically interested in the Tor software or network and the associated research problems raised by large, distributed systems. Finally, some may be interested for adversarial reasons, e.g., collecting information on the uses of the network or the content being transferred. All of these reasons provide intrinsic motivation for operators to contribute - they don’t expect any direct compensation for their contributions.

The volunteer approach has succeeded so far: Tor now consists of over 5000 relays transferring between 4 and 5 GiB/s in aggregate. For the most part, this is "organic" growth obtained through community outreach, where volunteers first have personal contact with existing community members and become inspired to help.

Whatever their reason for volunteering, relay operators not only contribute resources from the physical machines upon which their relays are executed, but also contribute the time involved with configuring, updating, and adjusting their relays as both the software and network mature. In many cases, operators also contribute monetarily through the direct purchase of dedicated machines or special fast connections to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), and exit relay operators spend social energy on maintaining relationships with their ISP (to make sure the ISP understands that requests coming from their machines are from Tor).

However, because many people that are otherwise excited about or interested in Tor are incapable or unwilling to incur these expenses, there are far fewer Tor relays than Tor clients (users that use Tor to access content, e.g. via the Tor Browser Bundle, without directly contributing resources to the network). Expanding the set of relays could have many benefits: Tor could become faster, more reliable, and more secure while at the same time distributing trust among a larger and more diverse set of distributed peers. A larger network that is transferring a larger quantity and more diverse types of data will, in general, make it more difficult for an adversary to determine who is talking to whom. This means a safer Tor for everyone.

Incentives and motivation... say whuuuht?

There are many social and technical challenges involved with expanding the set of Tor relays. We focus here on the social issues surrounding how to encourage more people to run a relay in the first place by providing incentives (i.e., rewards) for relay operators, and later focus on how to do this without leaking information or otherwise hurting Tor’s anonymity.

An important social issue to consider is that of maintaining the existing community of operators and how rewards could harm it. The presumption here is that existing relay operators are motivated to run relays for their own reasons - the act of contributing to Tor itself has intrinsic value to them. Then the question is: what would happen if we start rewarding operators through the use of an incentive system?

The answer isn’t clear, and there are at least a couple of forks in the cognitive road with many more questions along the way. First, what would happen to the existing operators who used to feel good about volunteering but are now compensated with a reward that may have extrinsic value? Although the new reward may provide some extrinsic value, will it lower their original intrinsic value enough to cause them to lose their motivation to contribute? Will they continue their contributions but begin to expect the reward, such that if the reward is removed later they would no longer be motivated even though originally (before the reward) they were happy to contribute? Second, is the new group of operators attracted to Tor by the reward somehow less desirable than the existing group, because they don’t care as much about Tor or are more likely to stop contributions and leave the system more quickly than the existing volunteers? Is the fact that they have higher extrinsic motivation than intrinsic make them better or worse operators? Will they be less likely to incur the costs of saying "no" when people ask them to log or turn over traffic? Will they in fact be willing to sell logs if it increases their rewards? Third, how will the new group of operators affect the existing group? If their intrinsic motivation was low enough before the reward that they didn’t contribute, but high enough with the reward that they do contribute, are these new contributors going to somehow shift the "community spirit" into something that no longer has the value that it once had? Will this "crowd out" the intrinsically motivated individuals and cause existing operators to leave (a widely acknowledged theory)?

The answers to these questions are not clear, though speculations abound. One response is that we will never know what will happen until we try it, but if we try it we may not like the result. Another is that if we try it and it succeeds, great; if it starts going badly, we can adapt and adjust.

Researchers and other Tor community members have been interested in the Tor incentive problem because a well-designed incentive scheme has the potential to greatly improve the network (we will discuss several technical designs below). However, because of the many open social questions, it has been challenging for the Tor community to come to a consensus on the path forward. On one hand and as discussed above, many people already run Tor relays and provide valuable service, and the network and bandwidth graphs imply some amount of success in network growth. It would be tragic if the introduction of an experimental reward scheme drove away the existing participants. On the other hand, the number of Tor clients still vastly exceeds the number of relays, and Tor’s bandwidth capacity remains the limiting factor for Tor’s growth.

A simplified model of reasoning

If we consider that relay operators with a higher intrinsic motivation to contribute are somehow more desirable to the network and the community because they care more deeply about Tor and the social movement, then we can consider there to be a trade-off between reward value and the desirability of the operator. The lower the extrinsic reward value is, the higher the intrinsic value a potential new operator must possess in order for the total value to be high enough to motivate her to contribute. The higher the extrinsic reward value is, the lower the intrinsic value may be to still attract the new operator. Under this model, as the value of the reward increases, the number of individuals willing to contribute also increases while their "quality" decreases.

Please note that this is a very simplified model of reasoning and since it does not necessarily reflect reality, not everyone should agree with it. There are many other values in play here as well; for example, motivations change over time as the world changes, and incentive schemes that require significant protocol modifications are more difficult to implement, test, and deploy. Nonetheless, this simplified model may help sort out the issues, and it seems to be consistent with the fact that the Tor community has thus far preferred to grow the network through intrinsically motivated relay operators.

Social rewards

Tor’s volunteer approach has generally been on the conservative side of our simplified model, where individuals with higher intrinsic motivations to contribute to Tor are preferred. New operators have been recruited through social and community-oriented efforts such as explaining how great Tor is and why they should care. This works well for people who are already intrinsically motivated about Tor, such as this guy who tattooed a Tor onion on his arm.

Other relay recruitment approaches for intrinsically motivated individuals include Torservers.net and the Noisebridge Tor Exit Node Project: both operate as independent nonprofit organizations for those people who would like to contribute to the Tor network but for one reason or another are not in a position to operate relays themselves. As discussed in a 2011 post, it is preferable that people who can run their own fast exit relays do so. But the approach of turning donations into fast exit capacity allows those who cannot run their own relays to still contribute to improving the performance and exit capacity of the Tor network.

The more recent EFF Tor Challenge is somewhere on the same side of the spectrum, except it actually offers small rewards as incentives. EFF explains Tor’s importance and users are encouraged to contribute to the network by running a relay. The challenge offers prizes to relay operators as an incentive: name and twitter handle published in a list of contributors, a limited edition sticker for running a relay for 12 months, and a t-shirt if that relay is fast (bandwidth of 1 MB/s or larger after 12 months).

Other social rewards are possible here as well. A post on the tor-dev mailing list proposes that Tor host a simple profile page for each relay that will list and celebrate the relay’s total bandwidth contribution over time, and recognize the operator for running special Tor bridge or exit relays. Relatively simple ideas like this may have the potential to attract intrinsically-motivated individuals without requiring extrinsic rewards or a lot of changes to Tor itself.

The approaches in this category are relatively low-risk/low-reward schemes: even though the new operators are receiving recognition or a reward for running a relay, the reward is of such little value that there is little risk that existing contributors who may not have been rewarded will leave. At the same time, a new operator loses little if it decides to shut down the new relay.

On the other side of the spectrum are more "radical" approaches that do not require individuals with high intrinsic motivation (though they are welcome, too!) but change Tor’s design have been explored by researchers. Researchers explore these designs because they are generally more technically interesting and have the potential to produce a much larger set of relays. We now shift to discussing these latest research proposals.

Review of early research on Tor incentive system designs - Gold Star and PAR

The 2009 post discussed two incentive papers that were new at the time: Payment for Anonymous Routing from PETS 2008 (PAR) and Building Incentives into Tor from FC 2010 (the "Gold Star" scheme).

In the Gold Star scheme, the Tor directory authorities measure the bandwidth of Tor relays and assign a special flag (a "gold star") to the fastest 7/8 of relays. Then whenever those relays send traffic through Tor, they choose the other fast gold star relays to form a fast gold star path. Relays then prioritize traffic on these gold star paths. The incentive here is that if you run a relay, you will get faster service when using Tor as a client. The main drawback to this approach is that only relays are able to get gold stars and priority service. This means that all relays that are part of a gold star path know for certain that the initiator of that traffic is someone from the small list of gold star relays. Because the set of gold star relays would be smaller than the set of all Tor users by several orders of magnitude, the anonymity for gold star relays would be significantly harmed.

In PAR, all users (not just relays) are able to be part of the incentive system. PAR has an honest-but-curious centralized entity called a "bank" that manages digital tokens called "coins". Users can purchase coins from the bank and then pay the relays while using Tor; the relays then deposit the coins back into the bank and the bank checks to make sure the coin is valid and that it has never been spent before (i.e., it has not been "double spent"). The main novel idea explored in this work is how to include digital payments into each Tor circuit in a way that prevents the relays from learning the client’s identity from the payment itself.

Adding real money into Tor opens a host of new legal and technical questions, which Roger already briefly discussed. For example, real money might shift Tor into a different legal category (see e.g. the EU discussions of what is a "service provider" and which ones are obliged to do data retention), or change the liability situation for relay operators.

The main design challenge we learned from the PAR design is that the timing of when the client withdraws the coins and the relays deposit them creates a trade-off between the ability to detect double spending and link a client to its coins. If the client withdraws some coins and a few seconds later a relay starts depositing coins, how much information does the bank gain? If the relay waits for some time interval to deposit the coins to hide this timing information, then it becomes possible for the client to double spend those coins during that interval. The longer the relay waits before depositing, the harder it is for the bank to link the coins but the easier it is for the client to cheat. A rational relay will deposit immediately to secure its payment, which leads to the worst situation for anonymity. If we assume the relays will deposit immediately, then it is up to the client to hold coins for some random amount of time after purchasing them from the bank, to disrupt potential attempts to link withdrawals to deposits at the cost of flexibility in usage.

In review, both of these proposals have anonymity problems: the Gold Star scheme because the assignment of rewards to relays is public and identifies traffic as originating from the relatively small set of clients of fast relay operators; and PAR because the timing of the withdrawal by the client and the deposit by the relay may leak information about the client’s traffic. In PAR, coins may be held by the client and the relay longer to disrupt this timing information, but this trades off flexibility in usage and the speed at which double spending can be detected. So what have these papers taught us? We have learned about some requirements that a Tor incentive scheme should probably fulfill: both clients and relays should be able to receive the incentive so that neither group stands out; and the timing of payments should not allow cheating and should not enable linkability.

Preventing double-spending without leaking timing information - BRAIDS

Recruiting New Tor Relays with BRAIDS was the followup research proposal presented at CCS in 2010. One of our goals in BRAIDS was to eliminate the trade-off between double-spending and linkability. To achieve this, we designed a new type of digital token which we called a "relay-specific ticket". Tickets were still issued by a trusted, centralized entity - the ticketmaster (we called it a "bank" in the paper, but BRAIDS was not designed to handle real money). Clients choose which relays they want to use, and receive tickets from the ticketmaster that are valid only at the chosen relays while hiding the chosen relay information from the ticketmaster (using partially-blind signatures). Clients then form a Tor circuit with the chosen relays and send the tickets to receive traffic priority (using a differentiated services scheduler). Each ticket will then provide traffic priority through the chosen relay for a specific number of bytes. Because each ticket a relay receives is only valid at that relay and no other, the relay could prevent double spending locally without contacting the ticketmaster.

Another feature of BRAIDS is that tickets are distributed freely in small amount to any client that asks, but only to one client per IP address, and only once per distribution round. If the clients change their mind about which relays they want to use for a circuit, they may contact the ticketmaster to exchange their old tickets for new ones following a time schedule. The exchange process is also used by relays to turn the tickets they received from clients into new usable tickets.

One main drawback to BRAIDS is that even though all users are able to get a small amount of tickets for free, relays are able to accumulate a much larger stash because they receive the free tickets AND the tickets sent to them by other clients. This means that relays stand out when using tickets to download large flows because it is less likely that a normal client would have been able to afford it. Another major drawback is that the exchange process is somewhat inefficient. Relays will exchange received tickets for new ones which they can use themselves, and clients that didn't spend their tickets (e.g., because their Tor usage was low or their chosen relays became unavailable) must exchange them or lose them. This leads to the ticketmaster exchanging all system tickets over every exchange interval. (The ticket validity interval is split into [spend, relay exchange, client exchange], so clients that don't spend in the "spend" time-frame must wait until "client exchange" time-frame to get new tickets. Increasing the interval lengths make them slightly less flexible to rapid changes. The longer the intervals, the more tickets will "pile up" for later processing by the ticketmaster.)

BRAIDS showed us the power of relay-specific tickets but unveiled the scalability problems associated with a trusted, centralized entity.

Improving scalability - LIRA

LIRA: Lightweight Incentivized Routing for Anonymity was published at NDSS 2013. LIRA still uses a centralized entity to manage the incentives, but LIRA only requires incentive management for the relays (thousands) instead of for all system users (millions) like BRAIDS. The way we achieve this is through the use of a lottery system, where clients could simply guess a random number for every circuit to receive priority on that circuit (traffic is prioritized using a differentiated services scheduler as in BRAIDS) with tunable probability. The lottery is set up with special cryptography magic such that relays are rewarded with guaranteed winning guesses to the lottery; relays are allotted winners according to the amount of bandwidth they contributed.

LIRA is more efficient and scalable than any earlier scheme. However, LIRA’s main drawback is that probabilistic guessing reduces flexibility for clients wanting to receive continuous priority over time, and creates a potential for cheating the system because it enables clients to continuously create new circuits and new guesses until a correct guess is found. Another problem is that a secure bandwidth measurement scheme is required to ensure that relays don’t receive rewards without actually contributing to Tor (this wasn't necessary in BRAIDS because the clients sent rewards (tickets) directly to the relays); secure bandwidth measurement is still an open research problem. Finally, LIRA still relies on a trusted central entity to manage the lottery.

Reducing reliance on trusted parties - TEARS

From Onions to Shallots: Rewarding Tor Relays with TEARS will be presented at HotPETs later this week. The main goal in TEARS is to remove the reliance on a central entity to manage the incentives. The central entities in the above schemes (let’s generalize them as "banks") are referred to as "semi-trusted", because there are several ways a malicious bank could misbehave - for example, the bank could refuse service, could extort users by demanding extra fees in order to process their requests, or could "inflate" the digital currency (coins, tickets, guesses, etc.) by printing its own tokens for a profit.

TEARS draws upon the decentralized Bitcoin design to address these concerns by using a *publicly auditable* e-cash protocol that prevents the bank from misbehaving and getting away with it. The bank in TEARS consists of a group of semi-trusted servers, such as the Tor directory servers (as opposed to Bitcoin’s distributed proof-of-work lottery), only a quorum of which need to function correctly for the overall system to keep working. The e-cash cryptography used here is publicly auditable and every interaction with the bank is conducted over a public communication channel (such as the Bitcoin blockchain itself). The security guarantee is that any form of misbehavior on the part of the bank servers leaves a trail of evidence that can be discovered by anyone watching. This approach is reminiscent of systems like Certificate Transparency and OpenTransactions.

In addition to a decentralized bank, TEARS offers a new two-level token architecture to facilitate rewarding relays for their bandwidth contributions without hurting anonymity. First, a decentralized process audits relays’ bandwidth and informs the bank of the results. The bank mints new "shallots" (anonymous, auditable e-cash) for each relay based on their contributions and deposits them into the relay accounts on their behalf. Separately, the bank’s monetary policy may allow it to mint new shallots and distribute them to users, e.g. using mechanisms suggested in BRAIDS but more commonly known to Bitcoin users as faucets. Second, shallots are transferable among users and may be redeemed for relay-specific "PriorityPasses", which are then used to request traffic priority from Tor relays (again, as in BRAIDS). PriorityPasses are relay-specific so that relays can immediately and locally prevent double spending without leaking information to any other entity. This is a similar feature present in BRAIDS’ tickets. However, a novel feature of PriorityPasses is that they are non-transferable and become useless after being spent at a relay -- this reduces overhead associated with exchanges, and ensures that the process of requesting traffic priority does not harm anonymity because the act of redeeming a shallot for a PriorityPass will be unlinkable to any later transaction. There is a question of how many PriorityPasses can be spent in one circuit before it is suspicious that a client has so many, so the size of the faucets and how they distribute Shallots will play a key role in anonymity. Anonymity is also tied to how relays decide to distribute their Shallots to clients, either via a faucet or a through a third party market.

TEARS was designed to operate inside the existing Tor network and thus does not significantly change the fundamentals of Tor’s design. The decentralized bank and bandwidth measurement components do not alter the way clients choose circuits. Clients and relays that want to use or support TEARS, however, would need to support new protocols for interacting with the bank and logic for handling shallots, PriorityPasses, and traffic priority.

TEARS still relies on a "bandwidth measuring" component that can accurately and robustly determine when a relay has indeed contributed useful bandwidth. While the e-cash system in TEARS is designed to be publicly auditable, the existing mechanisms for bandwidth still require trusted authorities to probe.

Bandwidth measurement - TorCoin

A TorPath to TorCoin - Proof-of-Bandwidth Altcoins for Compensating Relays is the other paper to be presented at HotPETs this week. TorCoin addresses the bandwidth measurement problem with a different approach -- an altcoin (a Bitcoin alternative) based on a novel "proof-of-bandwidth" (rather than proof-of-work) mechanism called TorPath, in which the relays (and endpoints) of a circuit effectively mine for new coins whenever they successfully transfer a batch of packets. In TorCoin, a group of "assignment" authorities are responsible for generating a list of circuits (using a shuffle protocol) and assigning them to clients. Bandwidth proofs are then constructed as the circuit is used such that the client mines the TorCoin and then transfers part of it to each of the circuit’s participants.

Like TEARS, TorCoin distributes the process of rewarding relays for their bandwidth contributions. Bandwidth measurement is done directly as part of the distributed mining process and provides strong guarantees. Also, by utilizing a group of assignment authorities that may have more information about the system or underlying network, there is a lot of potential for generating more secure paths for clients than clients are able to generate for themselves.

TorCoin still has some issues to work out; it may be possible to fix some of the smaller issues with protocol modifications, but some of the larger issues don’t have obvious solutions.

One drawback to TorCoin is that it requires the group of collectively-trusted assignment authorities (you have to trust only that some threshold/quorum number of them are correct) to generate and assign circuits to clients. This is a similar trust model to the current Tor directory authorities. In practice, the assignment authorities cause availability issues: if a majority of the assignment authorities are unreachable, e.g. due to DoS or censorship, then the system is unusable to the clients because they won’t be able to generate circuits. This is also somewhat true of the directory authorities, however, directory information can be signed and then mirrored and distributed by other relays in the system whereas assignment authorities are required to always be online and available to new clients. TorCoin clients contact the assignment authorities in order to build new circuits, whereas in Tor they can build as many circuits as they need once the directory information is retrieved (from the directory auths or from directory mirrors).

TorCoin as written has significant security issues. Because relay assignment is not based on bandwidth, it is easier for an adversary to get into the first and last position on a circuit and break anonymity. This can be done through a sybil attack by adding an arbitrary number of bad relays and joining them to the network without actually providing bandwidth. Because the protocol reveals which ephemeral keys are attached to the assigned circuits, an adversary can confirm when it has compromised a circuit (has malicious nodes in the correct positions) without needing to do any statistical correlation attack (it can match up the ephemeral keys assigned to its malicious relays to the ones posted in the circuit assignment list).

The formation of relay/client groups is not discussed and is similarly vulnerable to sybil attacks where the adversary can completely subvert the coin mining process. This can be done by registering an arbitrary number of relays and clients with the assignment servers, such that a large majority of circuits created by the assignment process will contain malicious relays in all positions and be assigned to a malicious client. This malicious collective of nodes can then “pretend” to send bytes through the circuit without actually doing so, and gain an advantage when mining coins. The paper suggests to use a persistent guard, which means the adversary only needs malicious relays in the middle and exit positions of its sybil client circuits, exponentially increasing the probability of a full compromise (or requiring far fewer nodes to achieve the same probability of compromise as without persistent guards). (The sybil clients only have to get 2 of its relays in the circuit instead of 3, reducing the probability from f^3 to f^2 for malicious fraction f.) Further, even if some relays on a circuit are honest, it is not rational for them to refuse to sign proofs of bandwidth that have been exaggerated (too high) by other relays. It will only benefit a relay to ignore proof-of-bandwidth checks, giving it an advantage over completely honest nodes in the TorCoin mining process.

There are a variety of unaddressed practical deployment issues as well. It is not clear how to do load balancing with TorCoin alone - no one should be able to determine how many bytes were sent by any of the circuit members or where the payments for mined coins are being sent (anonymous TorCoin transactions are necessary for anonymity). Exit policies are not discussed, and there is no clear way to support them and for a client that would like to request a specific exit port. Its not clear how to ensure that a relay is not chosen for the same circuit twice, or two relays from the same relay family are not on the same circuit. Finally, it is not clear how to link ephemeral circuit keys to TorCoin addresses so that payments may be sent from clients to relays without revealing client identity.

Don't misunderstand my ranting here - I think that the TorCoin idea is great (I am a co-author after all). It has the potential to motivate new researchers and developers to start thinking about solutions to problems that Tor is interested in, particularly bandwidth measurement. However, the limitations need to be clear so that we don't start seeing production systems using it and claiming to provide security without working through *at least* the issues mentioned above. The current paper was an initial concept in its early stages, and I expect the system to improve significantly as it is furthered developed.

(For completeness, we should also point out that TorCoin will need a new name if anybody decides to build it. The Tor trademark faq says it's fine for research paper designs to use the Tor mark, but if it becomes actual software then it sure will be confusing to users and the rest of the Tor community about whether it's written by or endorsed by Tor.)

Note that TorCoin and TEARS are at least somewhat complementary, since TEARS *needs* a proof-of-bandwidth scheme, and TorCoin *provides* one. However, they’re also not directly compatible. TorCoin requires a substantial change to both Bitcoin and to Tor (or to put it another way, it would be a system that only partially resembles Bitcoin and only partially resembles Tor). On the other hand, TEARS leaves Tor's circuit-finding mechanism intact, and the token protocol in TEARS is closer to traditional anonymous e-cash systems than to Bitcoin.

For better or for worse?

As outlined above, recent research has made great improvements in the area of Tor incentives. More work is needed to show the feasibility and efficiency of the decentralized approaches, and a secure bandwidth measurement scheme would help fill a critical piece missing from TEARS. Recent improvements to the way Tor schedules sockets and circuits would be necessary to correctly provide traffic priority (see #12541), and then a differentiated services scheduler that is able to prioritize traffic by classes (already described in and prototyped for the BRAIDS, LIRA, and TEARS papers) would also be needed.

Unfortunately, it is unclear how to make headway on the social issues. A small scale rollout of an "experimental build" to those relays who want to support new incentive features could be one way to test a new approach without committing to anything long term.

One question that is often raised is: if an incentive scheme rewards relays for providing bandwidth, then won’t everyone just pick the same cheapest hosting provider and Tor will lose location diversity? This question is largely addressed in the discussion of what constitutes a useful service in the TEARS paper (the TEARS paper and appendices also gives useful commentary on many of the common problems and design decisions to make when designing an incentive scheme). Basically, it can be addressed in the monetary policy, e.g., in addition to rewarding relays for bandwidth, the bank could also assign weights that could be used to adjust the rewards based on certain flags that relays possess, or the geographic location in which they operate. This could be adjusted over time so that there would be a higher incentive to run relays in parts of the world where none exist, or to prefer exit relays over other positions, etc. Although, note that it is unclear exactly what the "correct" utility function should be and when/how it should be adjusted. Note that Torservers.net similarly rewards relays for location diversity (see here).

Another point to make here is that most of these approaches have nothing to do with giving out or transferring real dollars. The tokens in most of these schemes are useful only to receive traffic priority in Tor. Will there be third party markets that form around the exchange of the tokens? Sure. And they may be speculated. But at the end of the day, the tokens would still only provide prioritized traffic. Depending on the configuration of the priority scheduler, the difference between priority traffic and normal traffic may not be that extreme. It is conceivable that the tokens would not be worth nearly enough to compensate an operator for the ISP connection, much less the overhead involved with updating the software, maintaining the machine, and talking with the ISP -- and in that case we are still on the more conservative side of the social incentive discussions above.

Tor has some choices to make in terms of how to grow the network and how to position the community during that growth process. I hope that this post, and the research presented herein, will at least help the community understand some of the options that are available.

All the best, ~Rob

[Thanks to Roger Dingledine, Bryan Ford, Aaron Johnson, Andrew Miller, and Paul Syverson for input and feedback on this post.]

Jul 09, 2014

Welcome to the twenty-seventh issue of Tor Weekly News in 2014, the weekly newsletter that covers what is happening in the Tor community.

On being targeted by the NSA

Das Erste has published an article and supporting material showing how the NSA explicitly targets Tor and Tails user through the XKEYSCORE Deep Packet Inspection system. Several other media picked up the news, and it was also discussed in various threads on the tor-talk mailing list (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7).

The Tor Project’s view has been reposted on the blog. To a comment that said “I felt like i am caught in the middle of a two gigantic rocks colliding each other”, Roger Dingledine replied: “You’re one of the millions of people every day who use Tor. And because of the diversity of users […], just because they know you use Tor doesn’t mean they know why you use Tor, or what you do with it. That’s still way better than letting them watch all of your interactions with all websites on the Internet.”

More monthly status reports for June 2014

The wave of regular monthly reports from Tor project members for the month of June continued, with submissions from Georg Koppen, Lunar, Noel David Torres Taño, Matt Pagan, Colin C., Arlo Breault, and George Kadianakis.

Mike Perry reported on behalf of the Tor Browser team.

Miscellaneous news

An Austrian Tor exit node operator interpreted their conviction in a first ruling as judging them “guilty of complicity, because he enabled others to transmit content of an illegal nature through the service”. Moritz Bartl from Torservers.net commented: “We strongly believe that it can be easily challenged. […] We will definitely try and find some legal expert in Austria and see what we can do to fight this.”

Linus Nordberg is expanding the idea of public, append-only, untrusted log à la Certificate Transparency to the Tor consensus. Linus submitted a new draft proposal to the tor-dev mailing list for reviews.

Miguel Freitas reported that twister — a fully decentralized P2P microblogging platform — was now able to run over Tor. As Miguel wrote, “running twister on top of Tor was a long time goal, […] the Tor support allows a far more interesting threat model”.

Google Summer of Code students have sent a new round of reports after the mid-term: Israel Leiva on the GetTor revamp, Amogh Pradeep on Orbot and Orfox improvements, Mikhail Belous on the multicore tor daemon, Daniel Martí on incremental updates to consensus documents, Sreenatha Bhatlapenumarthi on the Tor Weather rewrite, Quinn Jarrell on the pluggable transport combiner, Noah Rahman on Stegotorus enhancements, Marc Juarez on website fingerprinting defenses , development, Juha Nurmi on the ahmia.fi project , and Zack Mullaly on the HTTPS Everywhere secure ruleset update mechanism.

sajolida, tchou and Giorgio Maone from NoScript drafted a specification for a Firefox extension to download and verify Tails.

Tor help desk roundup

One way to volunteer for Tor is to run a mirror of the Tor Project website. Instructions are available for anyone wanting to run a mirror. Mirrors are useful for those who, for one reason or another, cannot access or use the main Tor Project website. Volunteers who have successfully set up a synced a mirror can report their mirror to the tor-mirrors mailing list to get it included in the full mirrors list.

Easy development tasks to get involved with

ooniprobe is a tool for conducting network measurements that are useful for detecting network interference. When ooniprobe starts it should perform checks to verify that the config file is correct. If that is not the case, it should fail gracefully at startup. The ticket indicates where this check should be added to the ooniprobe codebase. If you’d like to do some easy Python hacking, be sure to give this ticket a try.


This issue of Tor Weekly News has been assembled by Lunar, harmony, Matt Pagan, and Karsten Loesing.

Want to continue reading TWN? Please help us create this newsletter. We still need more volunteers to watch the Tor community and report important news. Please see the project page, write down your name and subscribe to the team mailing list if you want to get involved!

Jul 03, 2014

As quoted in the original article on Das Erste:

We've been thinking of state surveillance for years because of our work in places where journalists are threatened. Tor's anonymity is based on distributed trust, so observing traffic at one place in the Tor network, even a directory authority, isn't enough to break it. Tor has gone mainstream in the past few years, and its wide diversity of users -- from civic-minded individuals and ordinary consumers to activists, law enforcement, and companies -- is part of its security. Just learning that somebody visited the Tor or Tails website doesn't tell you whether that person is a journalist source, someone concerned that her Internet Service Provider will learn about her health conditions, or just someone irked that cat videos are blocked in her location.

Trying to make a list of Tor's millions of daily users certainly counts as widescale collection. Their attack on the bridge address distribution service shows their "collect all the things" mentality -- it's worth emphasizing that we designed bridges for users in countries like China and Iran, and here we are finding out about attacks by our own country. Does reading the contents of those mails violate the wiretap act? Now I understand how the Google engineers felt when they learned about the attacks on their infrastructure.