Negotiating and initializing channels

Here we describe the primary TLS behavior used by Tor relays and clients to create a new channel. There are older versions of these handshakes, which we describe in another section.

In brief:

When this handshake is in use, the first cell must be VERSIONS, VPADDING, or AUTHORIZE, and no other cell type is allowed to intervene besides those specified, except for VPADDING cells.

(The AUTHORIZE cell type is reserved for future use by scanning-resistance designs. It is not specified here.)


The TLS handshake

The initiator must send a ciphersuite list containing at least one ciphersuite other than those listed in the obsolete v1 handshake.

This is trivially achieved by using any modern TLS implementation, and most implementations will not need to worry about it.

This requirement distinguishes the current protocol (sometimes called the "in-protocol" or "v3" handshake) from the obsolete v1 protocol.

TLS security considerations

(Standard TLS security guarantees apply; this is not a comprehensive guide.)

Implementations SHOULD NOT allow TLS session resumption -- it can exacerbate some attacks (e.g. the "Triple Handshake" attack from Feb 2013), and it plays havoc with forward secrecy guarantees.

Implementations SHOULD NOT allow TLS compression -- although we don't know a way to apply a CRIME-style attack to current Tor directly, it's a waste of resources.

Negotiating versions with VERSIONS cells

There are multiple instances of the Tor channel protocol.

Once the TLS handshake is complete, both parties send a VERSIONS cell to negotiate which one they will use.

The body in a VERSIONS cell is a series of big-endian two-byte integers. Both parties MUST select as the link protocol version the highest number contained both in the VERSIONS cell they sent and in the VERSIONS cell they received. If they have no such version in common, they cannot communicate and MUST close the connection. Either party MUST close the connection if the VERSIONS cell is not well-formed (for example, if the body contains an odd number of bytes).

Any VERSIONS cells sent after the first VERSIONS cell MUST be ignored. (To be interpreted correctly, later VERSIONS cells MUST have a CIRCID_LEN matching the version negotiated with the first VERSIONS cell.)

(The obsolete v1 channel protocol does note VERSIONS cells. Implementations MUST NOT list version 1 in their VERSIONS cells. The obsolete v2 channel protocol can only be used after renegotiation; implementations MUST NOT list version 2 in their VERSIONS cells unless they have renegotiated the TLS session.)

The currently specified Link protocols are:

1(Obsolete) The "certs up front" handshake.
2(Obsolete) Uses the renegotiation-based handshake. Introduces variable-length cells.
3Uses the current ("in-protocol") handshake. Must always be advertised.
4Increases circuit ID width to 4 bytes.
5Adds support for link padding and negotiation.

CERTS cells

The CERTS cell describes the keys that a Tor instance is claiming to have, and provides certificates to authenticate that those keys belong, ultimately, to one or more identity keys.

CERTS is a variable-length cell. Its body format is:

N1Number of certificates in cell
N times:
- CertType1Type of certificate
- CertLen2Length of "Certificate" field
- CertificateCertLenEncoded certificate

Any extra octets at the end of a CERTS cell MUST be ignored.

The CertType field determines the format of the certificate, and the roles of its keys within the Tor protcol. Recognized values are defined in "Certificate types (CERT_TYPE field)".

A CERTS cell MUST have no more than one certificate of any CertType.

Authenticating the responder from its CERTS

The responder's CERTS cell is as follows:

  • The CERTS cell contains exactly one CertType 4 Ed25519 IDENTITY_V_SIGNING_CERT.
    • This cert must be self-signed; the signing key must be included in a "signed-with-ed25519-key" extension extension. This signing key is KP_relayid_ed. The subject key is KP_relaysign_ed.
  • The CERTS cell contains exactly one CertType 5 Ed25519 SIGNING_V_TLS_CERT certificate.
    • This cert must be signed with KP_relaysign_ed. Its subject must be the SHA-256 digest of the TLS certificate that was presented curing the TLS handshake.
  • All of the certs above must be correctly signed, and not expired.

The initiator must check all of the above. If this is successful the initiator knows that the responder has the identity KP_relayid_ed.

The responder's CERTS cell is meant to prove that the responder posses one or more relay identities. It does this by containing certificate chains from each relay identity key to the TLS certificate presented during the TLS handshake.

The responder's ownership of that TLS certificate was already proven during the TLS hadnshake itself.

Validating an initiator's CERTS

When required by other parts of this specification; to prove its identity, the initiator must provide a CERTS cell.

Recall that not all initiators authenticate themselves; bridges and clients do not prove their identity.

The initiator's CERTS cell must conform to the rules for the responder's CERTS cell (see above, exchanging "initiator" and "responder") except that:

Instead of containg a SIGNING_V_TLS_CERT,

  • The CERTS cell contains exactly one CertType 6 SIGNING_V_LINK_AUTH certificate.
    • This certificate must be signed with KP_relayid_ed. (Its subject key is deemed to be KP_link_ed.)
  • All of the certs above must be correctly signed, and not expired.

The responder must check all of the CERTS cell's properties (as stated here, and in the previous section). If this is successful and the initiator later sends a valid AUTHENTICATE cell, then the initiator has ownership of the presented KP_relayid_ed.

Note that the CERTS cell is not yet sufficent to authenticate the channel, until AUTHENTICATE is received: unlike the responder, the initiator is not required to present a TLS certificate during the TLS handshake. Therefore, the initiator has no meaningful SIGNING_V_TLS_CERT certificate.

Therefore, instead, the initiator's CERTS cell proves a chain from the initiator's relay identities to a "link authentication" key. This key is later used to sign an "authentication challenge", and bind it to the channel.

Authenticating an RSA identity (#auth-RSA)

After processing a CERTS cell to find the other party's KP_relayid_ed Ed25519 identity key, a Tor instance MAY additionally check the CERTS cell to find the other party's KP_relayid_rsa legacy RSA identity key.

A party with a given KP_relayid_ed identity key also has a given KP_relayid_rsa legacy identity key when all of the following are true. (A party MUST NOT conclude that an RSA identity key is associated with a channel without checking these properties.)

  • The CERTS cell contains exactly one CertType 2 RSA_ID_X509 certificate.
    • This must be a self-signed certificate containing a 1024-bit RSA key; that key's exponent must be 65537. That key is KP_relayid_rsa.
  • The CERTS cell contains exactly one CertType 7 RSA_ID_V_IDENTITY certificate.
    • This certificate must be signed with KP_relayid_rsa.
    • This certificate's subject key must be the same as an already-authenticated KP_relayid_ed.
  • All of the certs above must be correctly signed, not expired, and not before their validAfter dates.

If the above tests all pass, then any relay which can prove it has the the identity KP_relayid_ed also has the legacy identity KP_relayid_rsa.


An AUTH_CHALLENGE cell is a variable-length cell with the following fields:

Challenge32 octets
N_Methods2 octets
Methods2 * N_Methods octets

It is sent from the responder to the initiator. Initiators MUST ignore unexpected bytes at the end of the cell. Responders MUST generate every challenge independently.

The Challenge field is a randomly generated binary string that the initiator must sign (a hash of) as part of their AUTHENTICATE cell.

The Methods are a list of authentication methods that the responder will accept. These methods are defined:

[00 01]RSA-SHA256-TLSSecret (Obsolete)
[00 02](Historical, never implemented)
[00 03]Ed25519-SHA256-RFC5705


To authenticate, an initiator MUST it respond to the AUTH_CHALLENGE cell with a CERTS cell and an AUTHENTICATE cell.

Recall that initiators are not always required to authenticate.

(As discussed above, the initiator's CERTS cell differs slightly from what a responder would send.)

An AUTHENTICATE cell contains the following:


Responders MUST ignore extra bytes at the end of an AUTHENTICATE cell.

The AuthType value corresponds to one of the authentication methods. The initiator MUST NOT send an AUTHENTICATE cell whose AuthType was not contained in the responder's AUTH_CHALLENGE.

An initiator MUST NOT send an AUTHENTICATE cell before it has verified the certificates presented in the responder's CERTS cell, and authenticated the responder.

Link authentication type 3: Ed25519-SHA256-RFC5705

If AuthType is [00 03], meaning "Ed25519-SHA256-RFC5705", the Authentication field of the AUTHENTICATE cell is as follows

Modified values and new fields below are marked with asterisks.

TYPE8The nonterminated string AUTH0003
CID32SHA256(KP_relayid_rsa) for initiator
SID32SHA256(KP_relayid_rsa) for responder
CID_ED32KP_relayid_ed for initiator
SID_ED32KP_relayid_ed for responder
SLOG32Responder log digest, SHA256
CLOG32Initiator log digest, SHA256
SCERT32SHA256 of responder's TLS certificate
TLSSECRETS32RFC5705 information
RAND24Random bytes
SIG64Ed25519 signature
  • The TYPE string distinguishes this authentication document from others. It must be the nonterminated 8-byte string AUTH0003.
  • For CID and SID, the SHA256 digest of an RSA key is computed as the SHA256 digest of its asn.1 encoding.
  • The SLOG field is computed as the SHA256 digest of all bytes sent within the TLS channel up to and including the AUTH_CHALLENGE cell.
    • This includes the VERSIONS cell, the CERTS cell, the AUTH_CHALLENGE cell, and any padding cells.
  • The CLOG field is computed as the SHA256 digest of all bytes sent within the TLS channel up to but not including the AUTHENTICATE cell.
    • This includes the VERSIONS cell, the CERTS cell, and any padding cells.
  • The SCERT field holds the SHA256 digest of the X.509 certificate presented by the responder as part of the TLS negotiation.
  • The TLSSECRETS field is computed as the output of a Keying Material Exporter function on the TLS section.
    • The parameters for this exporter are:
      • Context value: The initiator's KP_relayid_ed.
      • Length: 32.
    • For keying material exporters on TLS 1.3, see RFC 8446 Section 7.5.
    • For keying material exporters on older TLS versions, see RFC5705.
  • The RAND field is a uniform squence of Random bytes.
  • The SIG field is an Ed25519 signature of all earlier members in the Authentication (from TYPE through RAND) using KS_link_ed.

To check an AUTHENTICATE cell, a responder checks that all fields from TYPE through TLSSECRETS contain their unique correct values as described above, and then verifies the signature. The responder MUST ignore any extra bytes in the signed data after the RAND field.


To finish the handshake, each party sends the other a NETINFO cell.

A NETINFO cell's body is:

TIMETimestamp4 bytes
OTHERADDR:Other party's address
- ATYPEAddress type1 byte
- ALENAddress length1 byte
- AVALAddress valueALEN bytes
NMYADDRNumber of this party's addresses1 byte
NMYADDR times:
- ATYPEAddress type1 byte
- ALENAddress length1 byte
- AVALAddress valueALEN bytes

Recognized address types (ATYPE) are:


Implementations SHOULD ignore addresses with unrecognized types.

ALEN MUST be 4 when ATYPE is 0x04 (IPv4) and 16 when ATYPE is 0x06 (IPv6). If the ALEN value is wrong for the given ATYPE value, then the provided address should be ignored.

The OTHERADDR field SHOULD be set to the actual IP address observed for the other party.

(This is typically the address passed to connect() when acting as the channel initiator, or the address received from accept() when acting as the channel responder.)

In the ATYPE/ALEN/AVAL fields, relays SHOULD send the addresses that they have advertised in their router descriptors. Bridges and clients SHOULD send none of their own addresses.

For the TIME field, relays send a (big-endian) integer holding the number of seconds since the Unix epoch. Clients SHOULD send [00 00 00 00] as their timestamp, to avoid fingerprinting.

See proposal 338 for a proposal to extend the timestamp to 8 bytes.

Implementations MUST ignore unexpected bytes at the end of the NETINFO cell.

Using information from NETINFO cells

Implementations MAY use the timestamp value to help decide if their clocks are skewed.

Initiators MAY use "other OR's address" field to help learn which address their connections may be originating from, if they do not know it; and to learn whether the peer will treat the current connection as canonical. (See Canonical connections)

Implementations SHOULD NOT trust these values unconditionally, especially when they come from non-authorities, since the other party can lie about the time or the IP addresses it sees.

Initiators SHOULD use "this OR's address" to make sure that they have connected to another OR at its canonical address.