Circuit-level padding

The circuit padding system in Tor is an extension of the WTF-PAD event-driven state machine design[15]. At a high level, this design places one or more padding state machines at the client, and one or more padding state machines at a relay, on each circuit.

State transition and histogram generation has been generalized to be fully programmable, and probability distribution support was added to support more compact representations like APE[16]. Additionally, packet count limits, rate limiting, and circuit application conditions have been added.

At present, Tor uses this system to deploy two pairs of circuit padding machines, to obscure differences between the setup phase of client-side onion service circuits, up to the first 10 cells.

This specification covers only the resulting behavior of these padding machines, and thus does not cover the state machine implementation details or operation. For full details on using the circuit padding system to develop future padding defenses, see the research developer documentation[17].

Circuit Padding Negotiation

Circuit padding machines are advertised as "Padding" subprotocol versions (see tor-spec.txt Section 9). The onion service circuit padding machines are advertised as "Padding=2".

Because circuit padding machines only become active at certain points in circuit lifetime, and because more than one padding machine may be active at any given point in circuit lifetime, there is also a padding negotiation cell and a negotiated response. These are relay commands 41 and 42, with relay headers as per section 6.1 of tor-spec.txt.

The fields of the relay cell Data payload of a negotiate request are as follows:

     const CIRCPAD_COMMAND_STOP = 1;

     const CIRCPAD_RESPONSE_OK = 1;
     const CIRCPAD_RESPONSE_ERR = 2;


     struct circpad_negotiate {
       u8 version IN [0];

       u8 machine_type IN [CIRCPAD_MACHINE_CIRC_SETUP];

       u8 unused; // Formerly echo_request

       u32 machine_ctr;

When a client wants to start a circuit padding machine, it first checks that the desired destination hop advertises the appropriate subprotocol version for that machine. It then sends a circpad_negotiate cell to that hop with command=CIRCPAD_COMMAND_START, and machine_type=CIRCPAD_MACHINE_CIRC_SETUP (for the circ setup machine, the destination hop is the second hop in the circuit). The machine_ctr is the count of which machine instance this is on the circuit. It is used to disambiguate shutdown requests.

When a relay receives a circpad_negotiate cell, it checks that it supports the requested machine, and sends a circpad_negotiated cell, which is formatted in the data payload of a relay cell with command number 42 (see tor-spec.txt section 6.1), as follows:

     struct circpad_negotiated {
       u8 version IN [0];

       u8 machine_type IN [CIRCPAD_MACHINE_CIRC_SETUP];

       u32 machine_ctr;

If the machine is supported, the response field will contain CIRCPAD_RESPONSE_OK. If it is not, it will contain CIRCPAD_RESPONSE_ERR.

Either side may send a CIRCPAD_COMMAND_STOP to shut down the padding machines (clients MUST only send circpad_negotiate, and relays MUST only send circpad_negotiated for this purpose).

If the machine_ctr does not match the current machine instance count on the circuit, the command is ignored.

Circuit Padding Machine Message Management

Clients MAY send padding cells towards the relay before receiving the circpad_negotiated response, to allow for outbound cover traffic before negotiation completes.

Clients MAY send another circpad_negotiate cell before receiving the circpad_negotiated response, to allow for rapid machine changes.

Relays MUST NOT send padding cells or circpad_negotiated cells, unless a padding machine is active. Any padding-related cells that arrive at the client from unexpected relay sources are protocol violations, and clients MAY immediately tear down such circuits to avoid side channel risk.

Obfuscating client-side onion service circuit setup

The circuit padding currently deployed in Tor attempts to hide client-side onion service circuit setup. Service-side setup is not covered, because doing so would involve significantly more overhead, and/or require interaction with the application layer.

The approach taken aims to make client-side introduction and rendezvous circuits match the cell direction sequence and cell count of 3 hop general circuits used for normal web traffic, for the first 10 cells only. The lifespan of introduction circuits is also made to match the lifespan of general circuits.

Note that inter-arrival timing is not obfuscated by this defense.

Common general circuit construction sequences

Most general Tor circuits used to surf the web or download directory information start with the following 6-cell relay cell sequence (cells surrounded in [brackets] are outgoing, the others are incoming):


When this is done, the client has established a 3-hop circuit and also opened a stream to the other end. Usually after this comes a series of DATA cell that either fetches pages, establishes an SSL connection or fetches directory information:

[DATA] -> [DATA] -> DATA -> DATA...(inbound cells continue)

The above stream of 10 relay cells defines the grand majority of general circuits that come out of Tor browser during our testing, and it's what we use to make introduction and rendezvous circuits blend in.

Please note that in this section we only investigate relay cells and not connection-level cells like CREATE/CREATED or AUTHENTICATE/etc. that are used during the link-layer handshake. The rationale is that connection-level cells depend on the type of guard used and are not an effective fingerprint for a network/guard-level adversary.

Client-side onion service introduction circuit obfuscation

Two circuit padding machines work to hide client-side introduction circuits: one machine at the origin, and one machine at the second hop of the circuit. Each machine sends padding towards the other. The padding from the origin-side machine terminates at the second hop and does not get forwarded to the actual introduction point.

From Section 3.3.1 above, most general circuits have the following initial relay cell sequence (outgoing cells marked in [brackets]):

    -> [DATA] -> [DATA] -> DATA -> DATA...(inbound data cells continue)

  Whereas normal introduction circuits usually look like:


This means that up to the sixth cell (first line of each sequence above), both general and intro circuits have identical cell sequences. After that we want to mimic the second line sequence of

-> [DATA] -> [DATA] -> DATA -> DATA...(inbound data cells continue)

We achieve this by starting padding INTRODUCE1 has been sent. With padding negotiation cells, in the common case of the second line looks like:


Then, the middle node will send between INTRO_MACHINE_MINIMUM_PADDING (7) and INTRO_MACHINE_MAXIMUM_PADDING (10) cells, to match the "...(inbound data cells continue)" portion of the trace (aka the rest of an HTTPS response body).

We also set a special flag which keeps the circuit open even after the introduction is performed. With this feature the circuit will stay alive for the same duration as normal web circuits before they expire (usually 10 minutes).

Client-side rendezvous circuit hiding

Following a similar argument as for intro circuits, we are aiming for padded rendezvous circuits to blend in with the initial cell sequence of general circuits which usually look like this:

     -> [DATA] -> [DATA] -> DATA -> DATA...(incoming cells continue)

  Whereas normal rendezvous circuits usually look like:

     -> REND2 -> [BEGIN]

This means that up to the sixth cell (the first line), both general and rend circuits have identical cell sequences.

After that we want to mimic a [DATA] -> [DATA] -> DATA -> DATA sequence.

With padding negotiation right after the REND_ESTABLISHED, the sequence becomes:


  After which normal application DATA cells continue on the circuit.

Hence this way we make rendezvous circuits look like general circuits up till the end of the circuit setup.

After that our machine gets deactivated, and we let the actual rendezvous circuit shape the traffic flow. Since rendezvous circuits usually imitate general circuits (their purpose is to surf the web), we can expect that they will look alike.

Circuit setup machine overhead

For the intro circuit case, we see that the origin-side machine just sends a single [PADDING_NEGOTIATE] cell, whereas the origin-side machine sends a PADDING_NEGOTIATED cell and between 7 to 10 DROP cells. This means that the average overhead of this machine is 11 padding cells per introduction circuit.

For the rend circuit case, this machine is quite light. Both sides send 2 padding cells, for a total of 4 padding cells.

Circuit padding consensus parameters

The circuit padding system has a handful of consensus parameters that can either disable circuit padding entirely, or rate limit the total overhead at relays and clients.

  * circpad_padding_disabled
    - If set to 1, no circuit padding machines will negotiate, and all
      current padding machines will cease padding immediately.
    - Default: 0

  * circpad_padding_reduced
    - If set to 1, only circuit padding machines marked as "reduced"/"low
      overhead" will be used. (Currently no such machines are marked
      as "reduced overhead").
    - Default: 0

  * circpad_global_allowed_cells
    - This is the number of padding cells that must be sent before
      the 'circpad_global_max_padding_percent' parameter is applied.
    - Default: 0

  * circpad_global_max_padding_percent
    - This is the maximum ratio of padding cells to total cells, specified
      as a percent. If the global ratio of padding cells to total cells
      across all circuits exceeds this percent value, no more padding is sent
      until the ratio becomes lower. 0 means no limit.
    - Default: 0

  * circpad_max_circ_queued_cells
    - This is the maximum number of cells that can be in the circuitmux queue
      before padding stops being sent on that circuit.
    - Default: CIRCWINDOW_START_MAX (1000)