Papers tagged ‘Survey paper’

Performance and Security Improvements for Tor: A Survey

This week’s non-PETS paper is a broad survey of research into improving either the security, or the performance, or both, of low-latency anonymity networks such as Tor. Nearly all of the research used Tor itself as a testbed, and the presentation here assumes Tor, but most of the work could be generalized to other designs.

There’s been a lot of work on this sort of thing in the eleven years since Tor was first introduced, and this paper does a generally good job of categorizing it, laying out lines of research, indicating which proposals have been integrated into Tor and which haven’t, etc. (I particularly liked the mindmap diagram near the beginning, and the discussion near the end of which problems still need to get solved.) One notable exception is the section on improved cryptography, where you need to have a solid cryptography background to get any idea of what the proposals are, let alone whether they worked. There are also a couple of places where connections to the larger literature of network protocol engineering would have been helpful: for instance, there’s not a single mention of bufferbloat, even though that is clearly an aspect of the congestion problems that one line of research aims to solve. And because it’s not mentioned, it’s not clear whether the researchers doing that work knew about it.

Tor is a difficult case in protocol design because its security goals are—as acknowledged in the original paper describing its design [1]—directly in conflict with its performance goals. Improvements in end-to-end latency, for instance, may make a traffic correlation attack easier. Improvements in queueing fairness or traffic prioritization may introduce inter-circuit crosstalk enabling an attacker to learn something about the traffic passing through a relay. Preferring to use high-bandwidth relays improves efficiency but reduces the number of possible paths that traffic can take. And so on. It is striking, reading through this survey, to see how often an apparently good idea for performance was discovered to have unacceptable consequences for anonymity.

A Survey on Encrypted Traffic Classification

This paper gives a brief overview of techniques for extracting information from encrypted network traffic, covering the past five or so years, mostly focusing on the (perceived) network-management need to know what application is communicating within an encrypted tunnel. It’s not very good—it’s a big list of other papers, each earning a couple sentences of description, and not much else. I would not be surprised to learn that the authors have completely missed important pieces of literature in this area.

I’m writing it up here for two reasons. First, it’s useful to read mediocre papers in order to learn how to do better. In this case, the missing element is synthesis. A good survey paper is research upon the existing published research and, like primary research, has a result of its own to demonstrate. Typically, that result will have something to do with the connections among the articles reviewed. It will highlight and compare lines of research, or it will demonstrate how people’s thinking about the topic has changed over time, or it will highlight gaps where new work would be useful, or perhaps all of the above. A big list of articles, briefly described and classified, is only the skeleton of such a survey.

Second, survey papers are often an entry point into the literature for people outside a subfield. Those people are less likely to share assumptions with the people deeply embedded in a subfield. For instance: in this paper, the authors consistently assume, with only a brief handwave in the direction of a justification, that it is necessary for network management tools to be able to identify at least the protocol and perhaps also something about the data being carried over an encrypted channel. Now, me, I tend to think that if a box in the middle can extract any information from an encrypted channel, that’s a bug in the cryptosystem. And I am working in very nearly this subfield, so I already know why the network-management people think they need to be able to extract data from an encrypted channel. Someone coming at this paper from an application-security, end-user privacy, or theory-of-crypto perspective might have an even stronger negative reaction. And that’s the thing: the authors should have anticipated that people who don’t share their assumptions would read their paper, so they should have taken steps to back up those assumptions.