Title: Better performance and usability for the MyFamily option (v2)
Author: Nick Mathewson
Created: 27 May 2020
Status: Accepted

Problem statement.

The current family mechanism allows well-behaved relays to identify that they all belong to the same 'family', and should not be used in the same circuits.

Right now, families work by having every family member list every other family member in its server descriptor. This winds up using O(n^2) space in microdescriptors and server descriptors. (For RAM, we can de-duplicate families which sometimes helps.) Adding or removing a server from the family requires all the other servers to change their torrc settings.

This growth in size is not just a theoretical problem. Family declarations currently make up a little over 55% of the microdescriptors in the directory--around 24% after compression. The largest family has around 270 members. With Walking Onions, 270 members times a 160-bit hashed identifier leads to over 5 kilobytes per SNIP, which is much greater than we'd want to use.

This is an updated version of proposal 242. It differs by clarifying requirements and providing a more detailed migration plan.

Design overview.

In this design, every family has a master ed25519 "family key". A node is in the family iff its server descriptor includes a certificate of its ed25519 identity key with the family key. The certificate format is the one in the tor-certs.txt spec; we would allocate a new certificate type for this usage. These certificates would need to include the signing key in the appropriate extension.

Note that because server descriptors are signed with the node's ed25519 signing key, this creates a bidirectional relationship between the two keys, so that nodes can't be put in families without their consent.

Changes to router descriptors

We add a new entry to server descriptors:

"family-cert" NL
"-----END FAMILY CERT-----".

This entry contains a base64-encoded certificate as described above. It may appear any number of times; authorities MAY reject descriptors that include it more than three times.

Changes to microdescriptors

We add a new entry to microdescriptors: family-keys.

This line contains one or more space-separated strings describing families to which the node belongs. These strings MUST be sorted in lexicographic order. These strings MAY be base64-formated nonpadded ed25519 family keys, or may represent some future encoding.

Clients SHOULD accept unrecognized key formats.

Changes to voting algorithm

We allocate a new consensus method number for voting on these keys.

When generating microdescriptors using a suitable consensus method, the authorities include a "family-keys" line if the underlying server descriptor contains any valid family-cert lines. For each valid family-cert in the server descriptor, they add a base-64-encoded string of that family-cert's signing key.

See also "deriving family lines from family-keys?" below for an interesting but more difficult extension mechanism that I would not recommend.

Relay configuration

There are several ways that we could configure relays to let them include family certificates in their descriptors.

The easiest would be putting the private family key on each relay, so that the relays could generate their own certificates. This is easy to configure, but slightly risky: if the private key is compromised on any relay, anybody can claim membership in the family. That isn't so very bad, however -- all the relays would need to do in this event would be to move to a new private family key.

A more orthodox method would be to keep the private key somewhere offline, and use it to generate a certificate for each relay in the family as needed. These certificates should be made with long-enough lifetimes, and relays should warn when they are going to expire soon.

Changes to relay behavior

Each relay should track which other relays they have seen using the same family-key as itself. When generating a router descriptor, each relay should list all of these relays on the legacy 'family' line. This keeps the "family" lines up-to-date with "family-keys" lines for compliant relays.

Relays should continue listing relays in their family lines if they have seen a relay with that identity using the same family-key at any time in the last 7 days.

The presence of this line should be configured by a network parameter, derive-family-line.

Relays whose family lines do not stay at least mostly in sync with their family keys should be marked invalid by the authorities.

Client behavior

Clients should treat node A and node B as belonging to the same family if ANY of these is true:

  • The client has descriptors for A and B, and A's descriptor lists B in its family line, and B's descriptor lists A in its family line.

  • Client A has descriptors for A and B, and they both contain the same entry in their family-keys or family-cert. (Note that a family-cert key may match a base64-encoded entry in the family-keys entry.)


For some time, existing relays and clients will not support family certificates. Because of this, we try to make sure above the well-behaved relays will list the same entries in both places.

Once enough clients have migrated to using family certificates, authorities SHOULD disable derive-family-line.


Listing families remains as voluntary in this design as in today's Tor, though bad-relay hunters can continue to look for families that have not adopted a family key.

A hostile relay family could list a "family" line that did not match its "family-certs" values. However, the only reason to do so would be in order to launch a client partitioning attack, which is probably less valuable than the kinds of attacks that they could run by simply not listing families at all.

Appendix: deriving family lines from family-keys?

As an alternative, we might declare that authorities should keep family lines in sync with family-certs. Here is a design sketch of how we might do that, but I don't think it's actually a good idea, since it would require major changes to the data flow of the voting system.

In this design, authorties would include a "family-keys" line in each router section in their votes corresponding to a relay with any family-cert. When generating final microdescriptors using this method, the authorities would use these lines to add entries to the microdescriptors' family lines:

  1. For every relay appearing in a routerstatus's family-keys, the relays calculate a consensus family-keys value by listing including all those keys that are listed by a majority of those voters listing the same router with the same descriptor. (This is the algorithm we use for voting on other values derived from the descriptor.)

  2. The authorities then compute a set of "expanded families": one for each family key. Each "expanded family" is a set containing every router in the consensus associated with that key in its consensus family-keys value.

  3. The authorities discard all "expanded families" of size 1 or smaller.

  4. Every router listed for the "expanded family" has every other router added to the "family" line in its microdescriptor. (The "family" line is then re-canonicalized according to the rules of proposal 298 to remove its )

  5. Note that the final microdescriptor consensus will include the digest of the derived microdescriptor in step 4, rather than the digest of the microdescriptor listed in the original votes. (This calculation is deterministic.)

The problem with this approach is that authorities would have to fetch microdescriptors they do not have in order to replace their family lines. Currently, voting never requires an authority to fetch a microdescriptor from another authority. If we implement vote compression and diffs as in the Walking Onions proposal, however, we might suppose that votes could include microdescriptors directly.

Still, this is likely more complexity than we want for a transition mechanism.

Appendix: Deriving family-keys from families??

We might also imagine that authorities could infer which families exist from the graph of family relationships, and then include synthetic "family-keys" entries for routers that belong to the same family.

This has two challenges: first, to compute these synthetic family keys, the authorities would need to have the same graph of family relationships to begin with, which once again would require them to include the complete list of families in their votes.

Secondly, finding all the families is equivalent to finding all maximal cliques in a graph. This problem is NP-hard in its general case. Although polynomial solutions exist for nice well-behaved graphs, we'd still need to worry about hostile relays including strange family relationships in order to drive the algorithm into its exponential cases.

Appendix: New assigned values

We need a new assigned value for the certificate type used for family signing keys.

We need a new consensus method for placing family-keys lines in microdescriptors.

Appendix: New network parameters

  • derive-family-line: If 1, relays should derive family lines from observed family-keys. If 0, they do not. Min: 0, Max: 1. Default: 1.