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[tor-talk] Multiplexing TCP streams within a circuit similar to EWMA
I've been working for some time on Tor multiplexing and circuit scheduling
from a security perspective. I stumbled across the great work of Tang and
Goldberg and their implementation of EWMA (2010), and while their main
purpose was performance enhancement, it produced a certain level of
randomness to circuit scheduling.
I conducted many experiments on "circuit queue" and "output buffer" to
understand the extent of Tor multiplexing, and while obvious, I wanted to
state my findings. Multiplexing is only induced when multiple (two or more)
active circuits are involved and Tor has to decide which circuit queue to
first move cells from, to the output buffer of the next hop. When a single
active circuit exists, multiplexing is still invoked, but it simply yields
a FIFO order in moving cells from circuit queue to output buffer. This is
observed frequently at the OP level, when a single circuit is used, and on
low utilized relays, where one circuit is being multiplexed to the next hop
in the path. Naturally, a single circuit on a channel will be more prone to
analysis attacks than when many circuits are multiplexed on the same
Now going one step back, a circuit may contain many TCP streams, and since
most websites reference many resources in a single page (CSS, JS, images,
etc.) a user browsing through Tor will trigger simultaneous GET requests to
grab those resource, resulting in simultaneous TCP streams (browser
behavior). I also experimented this and concluded that Tor will push the
GET requests to the circuit queue (encapsulated in Tor cells) as they are
received from the browser. This indicates that the order of which streams
appear in a circuit queue, is primary controlled by the used browser.
My proposal here is to induce randomization on the circuit level, i.e.
multiplexing the order of those different TCP streams belonging to the same
circuit, without affecting the order of the stream itself to prevent
application's protocol breakage. That is, creating another level of
selection algorithm by which we choose the next stream to pop cells from
the circuit queue at random. When no circuits are being multiplexed (e.g.
at OP, or in low utilized relays), this will add the missing randomization
that would have been induced by multiplexing multiple circuits, and it will
add another round of randomization to multiplexed circuits in heavily
utilized relays. So I went and implemented the idea according to the
following logic. I understand that this is a poor implementation,
performance wise, and I already came with better algorithms, but this is
merely an easy-to-implement proof of concept.
- When a request is made to pop a cell (CELL_QUEUE_POP invoked), we scan
the whole queue (TOR_SIMPLEQ) and identify all streams that are in the
- For the sake of this example, say we identified 5 streams.
- For each identified stream, we record a pointer to first cell of
that stream in the circuit queue and populate an index linking
with that pointer.
- We select a random number between 1 and 5 (number of identified
streams). This is the stream number randomly selected.
- By consulting with the created index mapping, we pop the first cell in
- Reconnect Tor Simple Queue by updating the popped cell's
previous-item's "next pointer", and the popped cell's next-item's previous
The above was implemented in a new function (CELL_QUEUE_POP_RANDOM) in
relay.c with needed changes in other places. Now, I see a limited success
with this implementation. For some reason, I manage to grab web pages with
3-4 resources successfully (a css, js, one or two images), but when the
number of resources grow, I start receiving timeouts from the exit node,
until the OP tears down the circuit. This keeps happening with newly
established circuits as well.
What I'm aiming for here, is to study the effect of such randomization (on
the streams level within a circuit) to thwart Website Fingerprinting and
Traffic Analysis attacks in general. Tor is huge and I spent many hours
since last year to explore the aspect of multiplexing, however, perhaps
this is the time where I reach out for help from the experts.
Any idea why the algorithm is failing when the number of resources
increases beyond four? Could this be a Tor behavior or the underlying
protocol (HTTP)? Any general comments, observations, new ideas, or thinking
out loud is most welcomed. For the interested parties, let me know if you
require more details, numbers, results, code, or any additional info that
might help you help me in answering this.
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