Filename: 273-exit-relay-pinning.txt
Title: Exit relay pinning for web services
Author: Philipp Winter, Tobias Pulls, Roya Ensafi, and Nick Feamster
Created: 2016-09-22
Status: Reserve
Target: n/a

0. Overview

   To mitigate the harm caused by malicious exit relays, this proposal
   presents a novel scheme -- exit relay pinning -- to allow web sites
   to express that Tor connections should preferably originate from a
   set of predefined exit relays.  This proposal is currently in draft
   state.  Any feedback is appreciated.

1. Motivation

   Malicious exit relays are increasingly becoming a problem.  We have
   been witnessing numerous opportunistic attacks, but also highly
   sophisticated, targeted attacks that are financially motivated.  So
   far, we have been looking for malicious exit relays using active
   probing and a number of heuristics, but since it is inexpensive to
   keep setting up new exit relays, we are facing an uphill battle.

   Similar to the now-obsolete concept of exit enclaves, this proposal
   enables web services to express that Tor clients should prefer a
   predefined set of exit relays when connecting to the service.  We
   encourage sensitive sites to set up their own exit relays and have
   Tor clients prefer these relays, thus greatly mitigating the risk of
   man-in-the-middle attacks.

2. Design

2.1 Overview

   A simple analogy helps in explaining the concept behind exit relay
   pinning: HTTP Public Key Pinning (HPKP) allows web servers to express
   that browsers should pin certificates for a given time interval.
   Similarly, exit relay pinning (ERP) allows web servers to express
   that Tor Browser should prefer a predefined set of exit relays.  This
   makes it harder for malicious exit relays to be selected as last hop
   for a given website.

   Web servers advertise support for ERP in a new HTTP header that
   points to an ERP policy.  This policy contains one or more exit
   relays, and is signed by the respective relay's master identity key.
   Once Tor Browser obtained a website's ERP policy, it will try to
   select the site's preferred exit relays for subsequent connections.
   The following subsections discuss this mechanism in greater detail.

2.2 Exit relay pinning header

   Web servers support ERP by advertising it in the "Tor-Exit-Pins" HTTP
   header.  The header contains two directives, "url" and "max-age":

     Tor-Exit-Pins: url=""; max-age=2678400

   The "url" directive points to the full policy, which MUST be HTTPS.
   Tor Browser MUST NOT fetch the policy if it is not reachable over
   HTTPS.  Also, Tor Browser MUST abort the ERP procedure if the HTTPS
   certificate is not signed by a trusted authority.  The "max-age"
   directive determines the time in seconds for how long Tor Browser
   SHOULD cache the ERP policy.

   After seeing a Tor-Exit-Pins header in an HTTP response, Tor Browser
   MUST fetch and interpret the policy unless it already has it cached
   and the cached policy has not yet expired.

2.3 Exit relay pinning policy

   An exit relay pinning policy MUST be formatted in JSON.  The root
   element is called "erp-policy" and it points to a list of pinned exit
   relays.  Each list element MUST contain two elements, "fingerprint"
   and "signature".  The "fingerprint" element points to the
   hex-encoded, uppercase, 40-digit fingerprint of an exit relay, e.g.,
   9B94CD0B7B8057EAF21BA7F023B7A1C8CA9CE645.  The "signature" element
   points to an Ed25519 signature, uppercase and hex-encoded.  The
   following JSON shows a conceptual example:

     "erp-policy": [
         "fingerprint": Fpr1,
         "signature": Sig_K1("erp-signature" || "" || Fpr1)
         "fingerprint": Fpr2,
         "signature": Sig_K2("erp-signature" || "" || Fpr2)
         "fingerprint": Fprn,
         "signature": Sig_Kn("erp-signature" || "" || Fprn)

   Fpr refers to a relay's fingerprint as discussed above.  In the
   signature, K refers to a relay's master private identity key.  The ||
   operator refers to string concatenation, i.e., "foo" || "bar" results
   in "foobar".  "erp-signature" is a constant and denotes the purpose
   of the signature.  "start-policy" and "end-policy" are both constants
   and meant to prevent an adversary from serving a client only a
   partial list of pins.

   The signatures over fingerprint and domain are necessary to prove
   that an exit relay agrees to being pinned.  The website's domain --
   in this case -- is part of the signature, so third
   parties such as cannot coerce exit relays they don't own to
   serve as their pinned exit relays.

   After having fetched an ERP policy, Tor Browser MUST first verify
   that the two constants "start-policy" and "end-policy" are present,
   and then validate the signature over all list elements.  If any
   element does not validate, Tor Browser MUST abort the ERP procedure.

   If an ERP policy contains more than one exit relay, Tor Browser MUST
   select one at random, weighted by its bandwidth.  That way, we can
   balance load across all pinned exit relays.

   Tor Browser could enforce the mapping from domain to exit relay by
   adding the following directive to its configuration file:


2.4 Defending against malicious websites

   The purpose of exit relay pinning is to protect a website's users
   from malicious exit relays.  We must further protect the same users
   from the website, however, because it could abuse ERP to reduce a
   user's anonymity set.  The website could group users into
   arbitrarily-sized buckets by serving them different ERP policies on
   their first visit.  For example, the first Tor user could be pinned
   to exit relay A, the second user could be pinned to exit relay B,
   etc.  This would allow the website to link together the sessions of
   anonymous users.

   We cannot prevent websites from serving client-specific policies, but
   we can detect it by having Tor Browser fetch a website's ERP policy
   over multiple independent exit relays.  If the policies are not
   identical, Tor Browser MUST ignore the ERP policies.

   If Tor Browser would attempt to fetch the ERP policy over n circuits
   as quickly as possible, the website would receive n connections
   within a narrow time interval, suggesting that all these connections
   originated from the same client.  To impede such time-based
   correlation attacks, Tor Browser MUST wait for a randomly determined
   time span before fetching the ERP policy.  Tor Browser SHOULD
   randomly sample a delay from an exponential distribution.  The
   disadvantage of this defence is that it can take a while until Tor
   Browser knows that it can trust an ERP policy.

2.5 Design trade-offs

   We now briefly discuss alternative design decisions, and why we
   defined ERP the way we did.

   Instead of having a web server *tell* Tor Browser about pinned exit
   relays, we could have Tor Browser *ask* the web server, e.g., by
   making it fetch a predefined URL, similar to robots.txt.  We believe
   that this would involve too much overhead because only a tiny
   fraction of sites that Tor users visit will have an ERP policy.

   ERP implies that adversaries get to learn all the exit relays from
   which all users of a pinned site come from.  These exit relays could
   then become a target for traffic analysis or compromise.  Therefore,
   websites that pin exit relays SHOULD have a proper HTTPS setup and
   host their exit relays topologically close to the content servers, to
   mitigate the threat of network-level adversaries.

   It's possible to work around the bootstrapping problem (i.e., the
   very first website visit cannot use pinned exits) by having an
   infrastructure that allows us to pin exits out-of-band, e.g., by
   hard-coding them in Tor Browser, or by providing a lookup service
   prior to connecting to a site, but the additional complexity does not
   seem to justify the added security or reduced overhead.

2.6 Open questions

   o How should we deal with selective DoS or otherwise unavailable exit
     relays?  That is, what if an adversary takes offline pinned exit
     relays?  Should Tor Browser give up, or fall back to non-pinned
     exit relays that are potentially malicious?  Should we give site
     operators an option to express a fallback if they care more about
     availability than security?

   o Are there any aspects that are unnecessarily tricky to implement in
     Tor Browser?  If so, let's figure out how to make it easier to

   o Is a domain-level pinning granularity sufficient?

   o Should we use the Ed25519 master or signing key?

   o Can cached ERP policies survive a Tor Browser restart?  After all,
     we are not supposed to write to disk, and ERP policies are
     basically like a browsing history.

   o Should we have some notion of "freshness" in an ERP policy?  The
     problem is that an adversary could save my ERP policy for, and if I ever give up, the adversary could
     register it, and use my relays for pinning.  This could easily be
     mitigated by rotating my relay identity keys, and might not be that
     big a problem.

   o Should we support non-HTTP services?  For example, do we want to
     support, say, SSH?  And if so, how would we go about it?

   o HPKP also defines a "report-uri" directive to which errors should
     be reported.  Do we want something similar, so site operators can
     detect issues such as attempted DoS attacks?

   o It is wasteful to send a 60-70 byte header to all browsers while
     only a tiny fraction of them will want it.  Web servers could send
     the header only to IP addresses that run an exit relay, but that
     adds quite a bit of extra complexity.

   o We currently defend against malicious websites by fetching the ERP
     policy over several exit relays, spread over time.  In doing so, we
     are making assumptions on the number of visits the website sees.
     Is there a better solution that isn't significantly more complex?