Nowadays we are pretty darn sure we know how to encrypt network packets in transit such that there’s no realistic way to decrypt them. There are a whole host of second-order problems that are not as well solved, but basic message confidentiality is done—except for one thing: the length and timing of each packet are still visible to anyone who can monitor the
wire. It turns out that this enables eavesdroppers to extract a frightening amount of information from those encrypted packets, such as which page of a medical-advice website you are reading , the language of your VoIP phone call , or even a transcript of your VoIP phone call .
In principle, we know how to close this information leak. It is simply necessary for Alice to send Bob a continuous stream of fixed-size packets, at a fixed rate, forever, whether or not she has anything useful to say. (When she doesn’t have anything useful to say, she can encrypt an endless stream of binary zeroes.) This is obviously a non-starter in any context where Alice cares about power consumption, shared channel capacity, or communicating with more than one Bob. Even when none of these is a concern—for instance, high-volume VPN links between data centers, which are running at significant utilization 24x7x365 anyway—forcing all traffic to fit the constant packet length and transmission schedule adds significant overhead. Thus, there’s a whole line of research trying to minimize that overhead, and/or see how far we can back down from the ideal-in-principle case without revealing too much.
Today’s paper offers a theoretical model and test framework that should make it easier to experiment with the high-volume-VPN-link case. I like it for its concreteness—often theoretical modeling papers feel so divorced from practice that it’s hard to see how to do anything constructive with them. It is also easy to see how the model could be extended to more sophisticated traffic-shaping techniques, which would be the obvious next step. The big downside, though, is that it only considers a fixed network topology: Alice talking to Bob and no one else, ever. Even for inter-data-center links, topologies can change on quite short notice, and a topology-change event might be exactly what Eve is listening for (perhaps it gives her advance notice of some corporate organizational change). To be fair, the
continuous stream of fixed size packets scheme does completely solve the length-and-timing issue in principle; we do not have nearly as good schemes for concealing who is talking to whom, even in principle. Which is unfortunate, because you can do even more terrifying things with knowledge only of who is talking to whom.