Re: [perpass] On the perfect passive adversary

Brian Trammell <> Mon, 19 August 2013 07:01 UTC

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From: Brian Trammell <>
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Date: Mon, 19 Aug 2013 09:00:46 +0200
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To: Stephen Farrell <>
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Subject: Re: [perpass] On the perfect passive adversary
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hi Stephen, all,

Yeah, sorry for the giant multitopic rant. I'll split this out into a few threads to continue...

On Aug 18, 2013, at 11:47 PM, Stephen Farrell <> wrote:

> Hi Brian,
> First, thanks for the thoughtful post. You make some good points.
> A few responses below. Might be better to follow up in separate
> mails, since you raise too many interesting points probably:-)
> On 08/18/2013 07:45 PM, Brian Trammell wrote:
>> Greetings, all,
>> On the floor of my home directory, there are notes for a paper we
>> never finished called "The Perfect Passive Adversary"; intended as a
>> survey of the state of the network security and measurement
>> literature and practice to explain what is possible if one assumes an
>> adversary which can (1) observe every packet of every communication
>> at every point within a network but (2) does not have access to the
>> endpoints beyond the network interface (i.e. no keyloggers, and no
>> bulk access to user data at a service provider) and (3) cannot
>> influence packet forwarding. It grew to be rather too wide in scope
>> and too paranoid in tone to have a realistic chance at publication,
>> so we dropped it, which in retrospect seems a silly choice.
> So publish it! As an I-D even:-) But if you have a version that
> you're happy to share, that'd be great to see.

I dusted this off and had a look at it last night, and it's in worse shape than I'd thought as a coherent piece of work. But completing it (to -00 I-D quality, at least) and publishing an I-D -- especially given the scope of the conversation on this list -- seems like a great idea. I'll get started.

>> I would propose that we consider this as one of the threat models we
>> address; the exercise I propose is to examine the protocols we're
>> familiar with and think about (1) what's in the payload, (2) what can
>> be inferred from identifying metadata (IP addresses and port numbers,
>> application-layer addresses (email addresses, URLs, etc) (3) what can
>> be inferred from non-identifying metadata (data volume and packet
>> counts, interarrival times,  control information such as sequence
>> numbers, and so on).
> Taking a look at [1] would be good also for folks who weren't at the
> TLS wg session in Berlin - an 83% probability of identifying users
> based on the size of their FB avatar images as sent over TLS is an
> interesting result I think.
>   [1]
> But I absolutely agree that if we can somehow inventory the protocols
> which we know (each of us having different knowledge) from this pov
> that'd be valuable. (I'm hoping someone jumps in now to say they're
> interested in writing that up as an I-D or wiki or something.)

Wasn't at the TLS WG, thanks for the pointer! This is a specific case of the general metadata fingerprinting problem (which, incidentally, is why I don't believe in anonymization any more). It's good to see awareness of this spreading.

>> It looks like this conversation is already well underway on the email
>> side of the house, which is good. :) What follows are some further
>> musings on the limitations of this approach.
>> In general, increasing use of end-to-end transport encryption[1]
>> mitigates the threat of eavesdropping by a man in the middle; indeed,
>> threat models involving intermediate eavesdropping are at this point
>> extremely well understood, and well defended against, barring
>> problems with the crypto protocols that I'm not a good enough
>> cryptographer to understand.  A perfect passive adversary generally
>> won't even bother trying to break this link: it's too strong, a
>> testament to the attention that's been paid to it over the decades.
>> Such an adversary could look for unprotected side-channels (e.g., SSH
>> keystroke timing attacks, static HTTPS content size/timing
>> fingerprints), or could give up on payload altogether and attempt to
>> make inferences just from the flow keys (this being the point of
>> large-scale metadata collection).
> Well... the DNS records you look up, the .js & .jpg files you download
> (and when), the src/dest/port of various things... seems like there's
> maybe a lot that's there today. Not to mention the times when how to
> do crypto stuff is well defined but not used (RADIUS/Diameter as an
> example?)

DNS radiates a _whole lot_ of information, and does so all over the place: if you own the path to an anycast instance of a root server, you get a 1/n sample of every query on the Internet not cached at a recursive resolver. It's at least widely used in stateless censorship (see Anonymous, "The Collateral Damage of Internet Censorship by DNS injection", ACM CCR July 2012); we must assume it's in wide use for pervasive monitoring as well.

> I think the inventory you suggest would be a fine thing were it to
> emerge from this list, esp. with a pervasive passive monitor in
> mind - which I don't think most of us have usually included in our
> threat models.

I'll get started on the perfect passive adversary I-D -- at least to define the threat model a bit -- hopefully in the coming couple of weeks (under a bit of deadline pressure at the moment :/ ) I could certainly also coordinate contributions of specific instances of information radiation coming off of various protocols into this I-D.

Best regards,