Filename: 180-pluggable-transport.txt
Title: Pluggable transports for circumvention
Author: Jacob Appelbaum, Nick Mathewson
Created: 15-Oct-2010
Status: Closed
Implemented-In: 0.2.3.x


  This proposal describes a way to decouple protocol-level obfuscation
  from the core Tor protocol in order to better resist client-bridge
  censorship.  Our approach is to specify a means to add pluggable
  transport implementations to Tor clients and bridges so that they can
  negotiate a superencipherment for the Tor protocol.


  This is a document about transport plugins; it does not cover
  discovery improvements, or bridgedb improvements.  While these
  requirements might be solved by a program that also functions as a
  transport plugin, this proposal only covers the requirements and
  operation of transport plugins.


  Frequently, people want to try a novel circumvention method to help
  users connect to Tor bridges.  Some of these methods are already
  pretty easy to deploy: if the user knows an unblocked VPN or open
  SOCKS proxy, they can just use that with the Tor client today.

  Less easy to deploy are methods that require participation by both the
  client and the bridge.  In order of increasing sophistication, we
  might want to support:

  1. A protocol obfuscation tool that transforms the output of a TLS
     connection into something that looks like HTTP as it leaves the
     client, and back to TLS as it arrives at the bridge.
  2. An additional authentication step that a client would need to
     perform for a given bridge before being allowed to connect.
  3. An information passing system that uses a side-channel in some
     existing protocol to convey traffic between a client and a bridge
     without the two of them ever communicating directly.
  4. A set of clients to tunnel client->bridge traffic over an existing
     large p2p network, such that the bridge is known by an identifier
     in that network rather than by an IP address.

  We could in theory support these almost fine with Tor as it stands
  today: every Tor client can take a SOCKS proxy to use for its outgoing
  traffic, so a suitable client proxy could handle the client's traffic
  and connections on its behalf, while a corresponding program on the
  bridge side could handle the bridge's side of the protocol
  transformation.  Nevertheless, there are some reasons to add support
  for transportation plugins to Tor itself:

  1. It would be good for bridges to have a standard way to advertise
     which transports they support, so that clients can have multiple
     local transport proxies, and automatically use the right one for
     the right bridge.

  2. There are some changes to our architecture that we'll need for a
     system like this to work.  For testing purposes, if a bridge blocks
     off its regular ORPort and instead has an obfuscated ORPort, the
     bridge authority has no way to test it.  Also, unless the bridge
     has some way to tell that the bridge-side proxy at is not
     the origin of all the connections it is relaying, it might decide
     that there are too many connections from, and start
     paring them down to avoid a DoS.

  3. Censorship and anticensorship techniques often evolve faster than
     the typical Tor release cycle.  As such, it's a good idea to
     provide ways to test out new anticensorship mechanisms on a more
     rapid basis.

  4. Transport obfuscation is a relatively distinct problem
     from the other privacy problems that Tor tries to solve, and it
     requires a fairly distinct skill-set from hacking the rest of Tor.
     By decoupling transport obfuscation from the Tor core, we hope to
     encourage people working on transport obfuscation who would
     otherwise not be interested in hacking Tor.

  5. Finally, we hope that defining a generic transport obfuscation plugin
     mechanism will be useful to other anticensorship projects.


  We're not going to talk about automatic verification of plugin
  correctness and safety via sandboxing, proof-carrying code, or

  We need to do more with discovery and distribution, but that's not
  what this proposal is about.  We're pretty convinced that the problems
  are sufficiently orthogonal that we should be fine so long as we don't
  preclude a single program from implementing both transport and
  discovery extensions.

  This proposal is not about what transport plugins are the best ones
  for people to write.  We do, however, make some general
  recommendations for plugin authors in an appendix.

  We've considered issues involved with completely replacing Tor's TLS
  with another encryption layer, rather than layering it inside the
  obfuscation layer.  We describe how to do this in an appendix to the
  current proposal, though we are not currently sure whether it's a good
  idea to implement.

  We deliberately reject any design that would involve linking the
  transport plugins into Tor's process space.

Design overview

  To write a new transport protocol, an implementer must provide two
  pieces: a "Client Proxy" to run at the initiator side, and a "Server
  Proxy" to run at the server side.  These two pieces may or may not be
  implemented by the same program.

  Each client may run any number of Client Proxies.  Each one acts like
  a SOCKS proxy that accepts connections on localhost.  Each one
  runs on a different port, and implements one or more transport
  methods.  If the protocol has any parameters, they are passed from Tor
  inside the regular username/password parts of the SOCKS protocol.

  Bridges (and maybe relays) may run any number of Server Proxies: these
  programs provide an interface like stunnel: they get connections from the
  network (typically by listening for connections on the network) and relay
  them to the Bridge's real ORPort.

  To configure one of these programs, it should be sufficient simply to
  list it in your torrc.  The program tells Tor which transports it
  provides.  The Tor consensus should carry a new approved version number that
  is specific for pluggable transport; this will allow Tor to know when a
  particular transport is known to be unsafe, safe, or non-functional.

  Bridges (and maybe relays) report in their descriptors which transport
  protocols they support.  This information can be copied into bridge
  lines.  Bridges using a transport protocol may have multiple bridge

  Any methods that are wildly successful, we can bake into Tor.

Specifications: Client behavior

  We extend the bridge line format to allow you to say which method
  to use to connect to a bridge.

  The new format is:
     Bridge method address:port [[keyid=]id-fingerprint] [k=v] [k=v] [k=v]

  To connect to such a bridge, the Tor program needs to know which
  SOCKS proxy will support the transport called "method".  It
  then connects to this proxy, and asks it to connect to
  address:port.  If [id-fingerprint] is provided, Tor should expect
  the public identity key on the TLS connection to match the digest
  provided in [id-fingerprint].  If any [k=v] items are provided,
  they are configuration parameters for the proxy: Tor should
  separate them with semicolons and put them in the user and
  password fields of the request, splitting them across the fields
  as necessary.  If a key or value value must contain a semicolon or
  a backslash, it is escaped with a backslash.

  Method names must be C identifiers.

  For reference, the old bridge format was
    Bridge address[:port] [id-fingerprint]
  where port defaults to 443 and the id-fingerprint is optional. The
  new format can be distinguished from the old one by checking if the
  first argument has any non-C-identifier characters. (Looking for a
  period should be a simple way.) Also, while the id-fingerprint could
  optionally include whitespace in the old format, whitespace in the
  id-fingerprint is not permitted in the new format.

  Example: if the bridge line is "bridge trebuchet
     keyid=09F911029D74E35BD84156C5635688C009F909F9 rocks=20 height=5.6m"
     AND if the Tor client knows that the 'trebuchet' method is supported,
     the client should connect to the proxy that provides the 'trebuchet'
     method, ask it to connect to, and provide the string
     "rocks=20;height=5.6m" as the username, the password, or split
     across the username and password.

  There are two ways to tell Tor clients about protocol proxies:
  external proxies and managed proxies.  An external proxy is configured
     ClientTransportPlugin <method> socks4 <address:port> [auth=X]
     ClientTransportPlugin <method> socks5 <address:port> [username=X] [password=Y]
  as in
     "ClientTransportPlugin trebuchet socks5".
  This example tells Tor that another program is already running to handle
  'trubuchet' connections, and Tor doesn't need to worry about it.

  A managed proxy is configured with
     ClientTransportPlugin <methods> exec <path> [options]
  as in
    "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.

  In managed proxies, <methods> can be a comma-separated list of
  pluggable transport method names, as in:
    "ClientTransportPlugin pawn,bishop,rook exec /bin/ptproxy --managed".

  If instead of a transport method, the torrc lists "*" for a managed
  proxy, Tor uses that proxy for all transport methods that the plugin
  supports. So "ClientTransportPlugin * exec /usr/libexec/tor/foobar"
  tells Tor that Tor should use the foobar plugin for every method that
  the proxy supports. See the "Managed proxy interface" section below
  for details on how Tor learns which methods a plugin supports.

  If two plugins support the same method, Tor should use whichever
  one is listed first.

  The same program can implement a managed or an external proxy: it just
  needs to take an argument saying which one to be.

Server behavior

  Server proxies are configured similarly to client proxies.  When
  launching a proxy, the server must tell it what ORPort it has
  configured, and what address (if any) it can listen on.  The
  server must tell the proxy which (if any) methods it should
  provide if it can; the proxy needs to tell the server which
  methods it is actually providing, and on what ports.

  When a client connects to the proxy, the proxy may need a way to
  tell the server some identifier for the client address.  It does
  this in-band.

  As before, the server lists proxies in its torrc.  These can be
  external proxies that run on their own, or managed proxies that Tor

  An external server proxy is configured as
     ServerTransportPlugin <method> proxy <address:port> <param=val> ...
  as in
     "ServerTransportPlugin trebuchet proxy rocks=heavy".
  The param=val pairs and the address are used to make the bridge
  configuration information that we'll tell users.

  A managed proxy is configured as
     ServerTransportPlugin <methods> exec </path/to/binary> [options]
     ServerTransportPlugin * exec </path/to/binary> [options]

  When possible, Tor should launch only one binary of each binary/option
  pair configured.  So if the torrc contains

     ClientTransportPlugin foo exec /usr/bin/megaproxy --foo
     ClientTransportPlugin bar exec /usr/bin/megaproxy --bar
     ServerTransportPlugin * exec /usr/bin/megaproxy --foo

  then Tor will launch the megaproxy binary twice: once with the option
  --foo and once with the option --bar.

Managed proxy interface

   When the Tor client or relay launches a managed proxy, it communicates
   via environment variables.  At a minimum, it sets (in addition to the
   normal environment variables inherited from Tor):

      {Client and server}

      "TOR_PT_STATE_LOCATION" -- A filesystem directory path where the
       proxy should store state if it wants to.  This directory is not
       required to exist, but the proxy SHOULD be able to create it if
       it doesn't.  The proxy MUST NOT store state elsewhere.
      Example: TOR_PT_STATE_LOCATION=/var/lib/tor/pt_state/

      "TOR_PT_MANAGED_TRANSPORT_VER" -- To tell the proxy which
       versions of this configuration protocol Tor supports.  Future
       versions will give a comma-separated list.  Clients MUST accept
       comma-separated lists containing any version that they
       recognize, and MUST work correctly even if some of the versions
       they don't recognize are non-numeric.  Valid version characters
       are non-space, non-comma printing ASCII characters.
      Example: TOR_PT_MANAGED_TRANSPORT_VER=1,1a,2,4B

      {Client only}

      "TOR_PT_CLIENT_TRANSPORTS" -- A comma-separated list of which
       methods this client should enable, or * if all methods should
       be enabled.  The proxy SHOULD ignore methods that it doesn't
      Example: TOR_PT_CLIENT_TRANSPORTS=trebuchet,battering_ram,ballista

      {Server only}

      "TOR_PT_EXTENDED_SERVER_PORT" -- An <address>:<port> where tor
       should be listening for connections speaking the extended
       ORPort protocol (See the "The extended ORPort protocol" section
       below). If tor does not support the extended ORPort protocol,
       it MUST use the empty string as the value of this environment

      "TOR_PT_ORPORT" -- Our regular ORPort in a form suitable
       for local connections, i.e. connections from the proxy to
       the ORPort.
      Example: TOR_PT_ORPORT=

      "TOR_PT_SERVER_BINDADDR" -- A comma seperated list of
       <key>-<value> pairs, where <key> is a transport name and
       <value> is the adress:port on which it should listen for client
       proxy connections.
       The keys holding transport names must appear on the same order
       as they appear on TOR_PT_SERVER_TRANSPORTS.
       This might be the advertised address, or might be a local
       address that Tor will forward ports to.  It MUST be an address
       that will work with bind().

      "TOR_PT_SERVER_TRANSPORTS" -- A comma-separated list of server
       methods that the proxy should support, or * if all methods
       should be enabled.  The proxy SHOULD ignore methods that it
       doesn't recognize.
      Example: TOR_PT_SERVER_TRANSPORTS=trebuchet,ballista

  The transport proxy replies by writing NL-terminated lines to
  stdout.  The line metaformat is

      <Line> ::= <Keyword> <OptArgs> <NL>
      <Keyword> ::= <KeywordChar> | <Keyword> <KeywordChar>
      <KeyWordChar> ::= <any US-ASCII alphanumeric, dash, and underscore>
      <OptArgs> ::= <Args>*
      <Args> ::= <SP> <ArgChar> | <Args> <ArgChar>
      <ArgChar> ::= <any US-ASCII character but NUL or NL>
      <SP> ::= <US-ASCII whitespace symbol (32)>
      <NL> ::= <US-ASCII newline (line feed) character (10)>

  Tor MUST ignore lines with keywords that it doesn't recognize.

  First, if there's an error parsing the environment variables, the
  proxy should write:
    ENV-ERROR <errormessage>
  and exit.

  If the environment variables were correctly formatted, the proxy
  should write:
    VERSION <configuration protocol version>
  to say that it supports this configuration protocol version (example
  "VERSION 1"). It must either pick a version that Tor told it about
  in TOR_PT_MANAGED_TRANSPORT_VER, or pick no version at all, say:
     VERSION-ERROR no-version
  and exit.

  The proxy should then open its ports.  If running as a client
  proxy, it should not use fixed ports; instead it should autoselect
  ports to avoid conflicts.  A client proxy should by default only
  listen on localhost for connections.

  A server proxy SHOULD try to listen at a consistent port, though it
  SHOULD pick a different one if the port it last used is now allocated.

  A client or server proxy then should tell which methods it has
  made available and how.  It does this by printing zero or more
  CMETHOD and SMETHOD lines to its stdout.  These lines look like:

   CMETHOD <methodname> socks4/socks5 <address:port> [ARGS=arglist] \

  as in

   CMETHOD trebuchet socks5 ARGS=rocks,height \

  The ARGS field lists mandatory parameters that must appear in
  every bridge line for this method. The OPT-ARGS field lists
  optional parameters.  If no ARGS or OPT-ARGS field is provided,
  Tor should not check the parameters in bridge lines for this

  The proxy should print a single "CMETHODS DONE" line after it is
  finished telling Tor about the client methods it provides.  If it
  tries to supply a client method but can't for some reason, it
  should say:
    CMETHOD-ERROR <methodname> <errormessage>

  A proxy should also tell Tor about the server methods it is providing
  by printing zero or more SMETHOD lines.  These lines look like:

    SMETHOD <methodname> <address:port> [options]

  If there's an error setting up a configured server method, the
  proxy should say:
    SMETHOD-ERROR <methodname> <errormessage>
  as in
    SMETHOD-ERROR trebuchet could not setup 'trebuchet' method

  The 'address:port' part of an SMETHOD line is the address to put
  in the bridge line.  The Options part is a list of space-separated
  K:V flags that Tor should know about.  Recognized options are:

      - FORWARD:1

        If this option is set (for example, because address:port is not
        a publicly accessible address), then Tor needs to forward some
        other address:port to address:port via upnp-helper. Tor would
        then advertise that other address:port in the bridge line instead.

      - ARGS:K=V,K=V,K=V

        If this option is set, the K=V arguments are added to Tor's
        extrainfo document.

      - DECLARE:K=V,...

        If this option is set, the K=V options should be added as
        extension entries to the router descriptor, so clients and other
        relays can make use of it. See ideas/xxx-triangleboy-transport.txt
        for an example situation where the plugin would want to declare
        parameters to other Tors.


        If this option is set, the server plugin is planning to connect
        to Tor's extended server port.

  SMETHOD and CMETHOD lines may be interspersed, to allow the proxies to
  report methods as they become available, even when some methods may
  require probing your network, connecting to some kind of peers, etc
  before they are set up. After the final SMETHOD line, the proxy says

  The proxy SHOULD NOT tell Tor about a server or client method
  unless it is actually open and ready to use.

  Tor clients SHOULD NOT use any method from a client proxy or
  advertise any method from a server proxy UNLESS it is listed as a
  possible method for that proxy in torrc, and it is listed by the
  proxy as a method it supports.

  Proxies should respond to a single INT signal by closing their
  listener ports and not accepting any new connections, but keeping
  all connections open, then terminating when connections are all
  closed.  Proxies should respond to a second INT signal by shutting
  down cleanly.

  The managed proxy configuration protocol version defined in this
  section is "1".
  So, for example, if tor supports this configuration protocol it
  should set the environment variable:

The Extended ORPort protocol

  The Extended ORPort protocol is described in proposal 196.

Advertising bridge methods

  Bridges put the 'method' lines in their extra-info documents.

     transport SP <transportname> SP <address:port> [SP arglist] NL

  The address:port are as returned from an SMETHOD line (unless they are
  replaced by the FORWARD: directive).  The arglist is a K=V,... list as
  returned in the ARGS: part of the SMETHOD line's Options component.

  If the SMETHOD line includes a DECLARE: part, the router descriptor gets
  a new line:

     transport-info SP <transportname> [SP arglist] NL

Bridge authority behavior

  We need to specify a way to test different transport methods that
  bridges claim to support.  We should test as many as possible.  We
  should NOT require that we have a way to test every possible
  transport method before we allow its use: the point of this design
  is to remove bottlenecks in transport deployment.

Bridgedb behavior

  Bridgedb can, given a set of router descriptors and their
  corresponding extrainfo documents, generate a set of bridge lines
  for each bridge.  Bridgedb may want to avoid handing out
  methods that seem to get bridges blocked quickly.

Implementation plan

  First, we should implement per-bridge proxies via the "external
  proxy" method described in "Specifications: Client behavior".  Also,
  we'll want to build the
  extended-server-port mechanism.  This will let bridges run
  transport proxies such that they can generate bridge lines to
  give to clients for testing, so long as the user configures and
  launches their proxies on their own.

  Once that's done, we can see if we need any managed proxies, or if
  the whole idea there is silly.

  If we do, the next most important part seems to be getting
  the client-side automation part written.  And once that's done, we
  can evaluate how much of the server side is easy for people to do
  and how much is hard.

  The "obfsproxy" obfuscating proxy is a likely candidate for an
  initial transport (trac entry #2760), as is Steven Murdoch's http
  thing (trac entry #2759) or something similar.

Notes on plugins to write

   We should ship a couple of null plugin implementations in one or two
   popular, portable languages so that people get an idea of how to
   write the stuff.

   1. We should have one that's just a proof of concept that does
      nothing but transfer bytes back and forth.

   2. We should implement DNS or HTTP using other software (as Geoff Goodell
      did years ago with DNS) as an example of wrapping existing code into
      our plugin model.

   3. The obfuscated-ssh superencipherment is pretty trivial and pretty
      useful.  It makes the protocol stringwise unfingerprintable.

   4. If we do a raw-traffic proxy, openssh tunnels would be the logical

Appendix: recommendations for transports

  Be free/open-source software.  Also, if you think your code might
  someday do so well at circumvention that it should be implemented
  inside Tor, it should use the same license as Tor.

  Tor already uses OpenSSL, Libevent, and zlib.  Before you go and decide
  to use crypto++ in your transport plugin, ask yourself whether OpenSSL
  wouldn't be a nicer choice.

  Be portable: most Tor users are on Windows, and most Tor developers
  are not, so designing your code for just one of these platforms will
  make it either get a small userbase, or poor auditing.

  Think secure: if your code is in a C-like language, and it's hard to
  read it and become convinced it's safe, then it's probably not safe.

  Think small: we want to minimize the bytes that a Windows user needs
  to download for a transport client.

  Avoid security-through-obscurity if possible.  Specify.

  Resist trivial fingerprinting: There should be no good string or regex
  to search for to distinguish your protocol from protocols permitted by

  Imitate a real profile: There are many ways to implement most
  protocols -- and in many cases, most possible variants of a given
  protocol won't actually exist in the wild.