Filename: 209-path-bias-tuning.txt
Title: Tuning the Parameters for the Path Bias Defense
Author: Mike Perry
Created: 01-10-2012
Status: Obsolete
Target: 0.2.4.x+


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


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

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

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

 In this case, however, the adversary is only carrying circuits for
 which either the entry and exit are compromised, or all three nodes are
 compromised.  This means that the adversary's Guards will fail all but 
 (c/n) + (c/n)^2 of their circuits for clients that select it. For 10%
 c/n compromise, such an adversary succeeds only 11% of their circuits
 that start at their compromised Guards. For 20% c/n compromise, such
 an adversary would only succeed 24% of their circuit attempts.

 It is this property which leads me to believe that a simple local
 accounting defense is indeed possible and worthwhile.

Design Description

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

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

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

 Circuit build timeouts are only counted as path failures if the
 circuit fails to complete before the 95% "right-censored" (aka
 "MEASUREMENT_EXPIRED") timeout interval, not the 80% timeout
 condition[5]. This was done based on the assumption that destructive
 cryptographic tagging is the primary vector for the path bias attack,
 until such time as Tor's circuit crypto can be upgraded. Therefore,
 being more lenient with timeout makes us more resilient to network

 To ensure correctness, checks are performed to ensure that
 we do not count successes without also counting the first hop (see
 usage of path_state_t as well as pathbias_* in the source).

 Similarly, to provide a moving average of recent Guard activity while
 still preserving the ability to ensure correctness, we periodically
 "scale" the success counts by first multiplying by a numerator
 (currently 1) and then dividing by an integer divisor (currently 2). 

 Scaling is performed when when the counts exceed the moving average
 window (300) and when the division does not produce integer truncation.

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

Analysis: Simulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis: Live Scan

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

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

 However, see the Security Considerations sections for reasons
 to choose more lenient bounds.

Future Analysis: Deployed Clients

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

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

Security Considerations: DoS Conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Security Considerations: Targeted Failure Attacks

 If an adversary controls a significant portion of the network, they
 may be able to target a Guard node by failing their circuits. In the
 context of cryptographic tagging, both the Middle node and the Exit
 node are able to recognize their colluding peers. The Middle node sees
 the Guard directly, and the Exit node simply reverses a non-existent
 tag, causing a failure.

 P(EvilMiddle) || P(EvilExit) = 1.0 - P(HonestMiddle) && P(HonestExit)
                              = 1.0 - (1.0-(c/n))*(1.0-(c/n))

 For 10% compromise, this works out to the ability to fail an
 additional 19% of honest Guard circuits, and for 20% compromise,
 it works out to 36%.

 When added to the ambient circuit failure rates (10-20%), this is
 within range of the notice and warn conditions, but not the guard
 failure condition.

 However, this attack does become feasible if a network-wide DoS
 (or simply CPU load) is able to elevate the ambient failure
 rate to 51% for the 10% compromise case, or 34% for the 20%
 compromise case.

 Since both conditions would elicit notices and/or warns from *all*
 clients, this attack should be detectable. It can also be detected
 through the bandwidth authorities (who could possibly even
 set pathbias parameters directly based on measured ambient circuit
 failure rates), should we deploy #7023.

Implementation Notes: Log Messages

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

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

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

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

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

Implementation Notes: Consensus Parameters

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

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

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

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

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

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

   The integer numerator by which we scale.

   The integer divisor by which we scale.

   If non-zero, we should actually drop guards as opposed to warning.

Implementation Notes: Differences between proposal and current source

 This proposal adds a few changes over the implementation currently
 deployed in origin/master.

 The log messages suggested above are different than those in the

 The following consensus parameters had changes to their default
 values, based on results from simulation and scanning:

 Also, the following consensus parameters are additions:

 Finally, 0.2.3.x needs to be synced with origin/master, but should
 also ignore the pb_dropguards parameter (but ideally still provide
 the equivalent pb_dropguards torrc option).

5. See 2.4.1 of path-spec.txt for further details on circuit timeout calculations.