Filename: 310-bandaid-on-guard-selection.txt
Title: Towards load-balancing in Prop 271
Author:  Florentin Rochet, Aaron Johnson et al.
Created: 2019-10-27
Supersedes: 271
Status: Closed

1. Motivation and Context

  Prop 271 causes guards to be selected with probabilities different than their
  weights due to the way it samples many guards and then chooses primary guards
  from that sample. We are suggesting a straightforward fix to the problem, which
  is, roughly speaking, to choose primary guards in the order in which they were

  In more detail, Prop 271 chooses guards via a multi-step process: 
    1. It chooses 20 distinct guards (and sometimes more) by sampling without
       replacement with probability proportional to consensus weight.
    2. It produces two subsets of the sample: (1) "filtered" guards, which are
       guards that satisfy various torrc constraints and path bias, and (2)
       "confirmed" guards, which are guards through which a circuit has been
    3. The "primary" guards (i.e. the actual guards used for circuits) are
       chosen from the confirmed and/or filtered subsets.  I'm ignoring the
       additional "usable" subsets for clarity. This description is based on
       Section 4.6 of the specification

1.1 Picturing the problem when Tor starts the first time

  The primary guards are selected *uniformly at random* from the filtered guards
  when no confirmed guards exist. No confirmed guards appear to exist until some
  primary guards have been selected, and so when Tor is started the first time
  the primary guards always come only from the filtered set. The uniformly-random
  selection causes a bias in primary-guard selection away from consensus weights
  and towards a more uniform selection of guards. As just an example of the
  problem, if there were only 20 guards in the network, the sampled set would be
  all guards and primary guard selection would be entirely uniformly random,
  ignoring weights entirely. This bias is worse the larger the sampled set is
  relative to the entire set of guards, and it has a significant effect on Tor
  simulations in Shadow, which are typically on smaller networks.

2. Solution Design

  We propose a solution that fits well within the existing guard-selection
  algorithm. Our solution is to select primary guards in the order they were
  sampled. This ordering should be applied after the filtering and/or confirmed
  guard sets are constructed as normal. That is, primary guards should be
  selected from the filtered guards (if no guards are both confirmed and
  filtered) or from the set of confirmed and filtered guards (if such guards
  exist) in the order they were initially sampled. This solution guarantees that
  each primary guard is selected (without replacement) from all guards with a
  probability that is proportional to its consensus weight.

2.1 Performance implications

  This proposal is a straightforward fix to the unbalanced network that may arise
  from the uniform selection of sampled relays. It solves the performance
  correctness in Shadow for which simulations live on a small timeframe. However,
  it does not solve all the load-balancing problems of Proposal 271. One other
  load-balancing issue comes when we choose our guards on a date but then make
  decisions about them on a different date.  Building a sampled list of relays at
  day 0 that we intend to use in a long time for most of them is taking the risk
  to slowly make the network unbalanced.

2.2 Security implications

  This proposal solves the following problems: Prop271 reduces Tor's security by
  increasing the number of clients that an adversary running small relays can
  observe. In addition, an adversary has to wait less time than it should after
  it starts a malicious guard to be chosen by a client. This weakness occurs
  because the malicious guard only needs to enter the sampled list to have a
  chance to be chosen as primary, rather than having to wait until all
  previously-sampled guards have already expired.

2.3 Implementation notes

  The code used for ordering the confirmed list by confirmed idx should be
  removed, and a sampled order should be applied throughout the various lists.
  The next sampled idx should be recalculed from the state file, and the
  sampled_idx values should be recalculated to be a dense array when we save the

3. Going Further -- Let's not choose our History (future work)

  A deeper refactoring of Prop 271 would try to solve the load balancing problem
  of choosing guards on a date but then making decisions about them on a
  different date. One suggestion is to remove the sampled list, which we can
  picture as a "forward history" and to have instead a real history of previously
  sampled guards. When moving to the next guard, we could consider *current*
  weights and make the decision. The history should resist attacks that try to
  force clients onto compromised guards, using relays that are part of the
  history if they're still available (in sampled order), and by tracking its
  size. This should maintain the initial goals of Prop 271.