Privacy-first delay tolerant network protocol

Overview

🌟 Liminality 🌟

Liminality is a unique protocol for wireless communication in fluid and dynamic environments. The protocol takes its name from the liminoid experiences that often unfold in spaces where individuals gather in numbers and disperse. As a disruption-tolerant mesh network protocol, Liminality flourishes in these environments, while other network topologies may be shut down1 or struggle to provide connectivity. At times, other networks may provide connectivity only at the expense of privacy2 or, in extreme cases, physical safety3.

Liminality is a network layer built upon the foundation of the IEEE 802.15.4g PHY and MAC layers. By leveraging the 802.15.4g specification, Liminality benefits from a standardized packet format, enabling interoperability among transceivers manufactured by different vendors. Furthermore, the 802.15.4g standard prescribes contention-handling mechanisms for crowded RF environments and offers forward error correction. The Liminality protocol defines the state machine governing association, disassociation, data transfer, and forwarding behavior within Liminality nodes. It covers all the behavior required to get raw data from A to B.

Liminality uses the noise protocol framework to provide security guarantees, configured in the Noise_IK_25519_ChaChaPoly_BLAKE2s pattern. Building on top of noise enables Liminality to provide trustworthy security properties, which are often unattainable for protocols relying on bespoke usages of cryptographic primitives unless subjected to thorough audits.

Features

To the best of my knowledge, Liminality offers the following properties:

  1. Simplicity: Liminality keeps things uncomplicated with just four message types and an easily comprehensible state machine.
  2. Initiator Privacy: Observers outside a channel remain unaware of the public key or any long-term identifiers associated with the initiator, preserving a degree of privacy.
  3. Recipient Privacy: When identifying oneself as the recipient to trigger message delivery, Liminality avoids revealing information that could be used for fingerprinting, apart from metadata about delivery, such as the time, location, and ciphertext of the radio transmission.
  4. Relay Privacy: Delivering a message avoids disclosing information suitable for fingerprinting, only leaking the time, location, and message ciphertext.
  5. Forward Secrecy: Each channel uses a new ephemeral key derived via an ECDH handshake. The handshake uses ephemeral keys for all messages except the first in a channel, which uses a recipient's static key.
  6. Low Latency: Liminality uses a noise handshake pattern that enables 0-RTT handshakes.
  7. Efficient Bandwidth Utilization: Liminality incorporates a modified spray-and-wait routing mechanism, allowing for efficient network bandwidth utilization.
  8. Authenticated and Encrypted Channels: Outside observers of a channel are incapable of forging or reading messages within it.

It's important to note that Liminality has yet to undergo a formal audit. While it offers useful properties, it may not withstand sophisticated attackers such as state actors. This is especially true of its privacy properties, which rely on some un-audited raw operations on Curve25519. Consider this carefully in situations where strong guarantees are necessary to protect life, property, or safety. While it is exciting and novel that a disruption/delay-tolerant network is able to provide these security and privacy properties, an end-to-end encrypted messaging app of your choosing has similar or superior security and privacy in an information-theoretic sense, at the expense of censorship resistance and being trivially trackable through physical space.

Future work

A reference implementation is in-progress, as is a few parallel hardware efforts. Initial hardware targets are low-cost self-powered relay nodes (BOM cost < USD$15) and a new motherboard and modem for the Nokia 3310 handset along with software to send and receive messages using the liminality protocol.

Non-goals

Liminality prioritizes security and anonymity but comes with some limitations. The protocol does not provide resistance against malicious denial-of-service behavior, such as Sybil attacks, flooding, or black-hole attacks. Network operation assumes that peers are honest and will not engage in disruptive activities. Addressing these issues falls outside the protocol's scope, as they pose complex challenges, primarily of academic interest. Individuals capable of launching denial-of-service attacks on a delay-tolerant network can often do so through multiple avenues, making effective prevention impractical. While protocol-level denial-of-service attacks may be mitigated through thoughtful design, determined attackers can often shift their focus to the physical layer without losing efficacy.

Wire format

The Liminality protocol employs four distinct packet types:

  1. Message packets carry raw data.
  2. Advertisement packets signal that a node has messages available for distribution throughout the network.
  3. Delivery offer packets are used to propose final message delivery. These packets use operations on Curve25519 to hide the message's identifier from everyone except its intended recipient.
  4. Message request packets are responses to delivery offers, initiating the final delivery process.

The subsequent sections describe the functionality of each packet type.

Conventions

While the noise protocol framework provides confidentiality and authenticity guarantees, Liminality provides its privacy guarantees through raw operations on Curve25519. When discussing elliptic curve math, this document defines "scalars" as large integers named s, sometimes with subscripts. Scalars are members of the prime field 𝕫 defined by the prime ℓ=2^252+27742317777372353535851937790883648493. This document defines points on Curve25519 as variables named P, sometimes with subscripts. Points in Liminality are members of the Ristretto group of the Edwards form of Curve25519. Implementations must perform all arithmetic on scalars and Ristretto points modulo ℓ.

Common features

All Liminality packets begin with a one-byte header.

Bits Field name Purpose
7:4 Protocol version Encodes the version of the specification that the implementation that constructed the packet targets. The current version is 0b0001.
3:0 Packet type Describes the type of packet contained in all subsequent data.

Message packets

Message packets correspond to the packet type 0b0000 and contain a payload of the following form:

Bytes Field name Purpose
0:31 Message ID scalar Serves as the message ID in conjunction with the point. Encoded as a 32-byte big-endian integer.
32:63 Message ID point Serves as the message ID in conjunction with the scalar. Encoded in a compressed wire format.
64: Payload Contains a noise message with information from the application layer.

Message IDs

As shown in the table above, message IDs contain a 32-byte scalar sₘ ∈ 𝕫, encoded as a 32-byte big-endian integer, and a Ristretto point on the Edwards form of Curve25519, encoded in a compressed 32-byte format for Edwards-form points. The message's sender derives a scalar s₀ ∈ 𝕫 by hashing the noise handshake hash concatenated with the recipient's public key. Specifically, they must compute s₀ = blake2s(handshake_hash ∥ public_key ∥ extra) % ℓ where blake2s uses a 32 byte digest and extra is defined later. After computing s₀, the sender will interpret it as a 256-bit little-endian integer and compute a point P₀ = s₀ * base where base is the curve's base point. After generating P₀, the sender will choose a scalar sₘ ∈ 𝕫 using a CPRNG and compute a point Pₘ = P₀ * sₘ. The 64-byte message ID is the big-endian form of sₘ concatenated with the Edwards-form compressed wire format of Pₘ.

Each new message in a channel must have a unique message ID.

The value of extra may be:

  1. The number of hours since the Unix epoch, represented as a 32-bit big endian integer prefixed with the salt "HOUR". In order to satisfy the uniqueness requirements, nodes may only use this form of extra once per hour.
  2. The ASCII representation of the message packet's sequence number, defined later, prefixed with the salt "SEQ".

Option 1 should be preferred for the first packet sent in any particular hour if both nodes in a channel have an RTC. If either node does not have an RTC, the second form should be used exclusively.

Advertisement packets

A node advertises they have copies of a message to share by emitting one or more advertisement packets. Advertisement packets use packet type 0b0001. The first byte of an advertisement packet is a sequence byte defined identically to a message packet's sequence byte.

If the most significant bit of an advertisement packet's sequence byte is high, the byte after the sequence byte contains a set of bit-packed flags in an advertisement header byte.

Bits Field name Purpose
7 Forwarder bit When high, the transmitting node can forward messages, and the receiving node should advertise messages it has copies of. When low, the advertisement phase is skipped, and only delivery offers and message requests are exchanged.
6:0 Reserved Reserved for future use.

After the advertisement header byte, advertisement packets contain a flat list of 8-byte blake2s digests, each computed over a group of message packets.

Delivery offer packets

Delivery offer packets correspond to packet type 0b0010 and exist to communicate the set of messages a peer has in its possession for final delivery. Delivery offers begin with a 1-byte integer called the sequence number, representing the number of delivery offer packets a node intends to transmit following the current one. Nodes may transmit delivery offer packets in any order as long as the sequence number monotonically decreases and ends at zero.

After the sequence number, delivery offer packets contain a flat list of message IDs, each of which contains a 32-byte big-endian representation of a scalar sₘ and a 32-byte compressed representation of a point Pₘ in the Ristretto group of Curve25519. Critically, delivery offers do not convey original message IDs verbatim.

Instead, nodes offering delivery will choose a scalar s ∈ 𝕫 using a CPRNG and compute a new scalar s' = sₘ * s. Then, they compute a point P = Pₘ * s'. These computations yield a new message ID that maintains the verifiability properties of the original message ID only for those who know the message ID's original value of s₀.

Verification of delivery offers

For any channel ch, the handshake hash and the recipient's public key are known to both sender and receiver. With that information, the receiver can determine if the s₀ used to create the original message ID matches any of the expected values for ch.

When a node receives a delivery offer, it will test the message ID against each of its open channels by following these steps:

  1. It will derive a set of possibile scalar values S from a channel's handshake hash, its public key and the number of hours since the unix epoch. Implementations with RTCs should generate a scalar for at least the previous 24 hours. It will also add to S at least 64 messages before and after the most recent message seq value it has received on the channel ch.
  2. Perform steps 3-4 for each s₀ ∈ S.
  3. Compute s = sₘ * s₀.
  4. Compute P = s * base where base is the curve's base point.
  5. If P equals Pₘ, the message on offer belongs to the tested channel, and the recipient will exit and issue a message request packet.

Message request packets

Message request packets use packet ID 0b0011. Following the header, each message request contains a flat list of message ID hashes. A message ID hash is computed as the 8-byte blake2s digest of the 64-byte message ID as transmitted by the message delivery offer.

Message request chaff

After receiving a sequence of delivery offer packets, a Liminality node must request at least min(20, ceil(0.02 * offered)) messages, where offered is the number of delivery offer packets in the sequence. If the node has storage space available, it should store packets received as chaff to offer for delivery to other nodes, subject to the TTL.

Spray-and-wait routing

A standard spray-and-wait system operates by proactively "spraying" a limited number of copies of a message across the network, then "waiting" for the bearer of one of those copies to come across its recipient and deliver it. Binary spray-and-wait requires that peers give away half of their "copies" of the messages they know about to each new peer they encounter until they only have one left. When a peer only has one copy left, they enter the "wait" phase for that message, waiting for a recipient to trigger delivery.

Fingerprinting attacks against spray-and-wait

Binary spray-and-wait performs very well, even compared to other DTN routing mechanisms with inferior anonymity properties. It is, however, possible for a malicious party to track a node through the network by creating a unique message and distributing only one copy. The recipient of this unique message will be identifiable anywhere on the network because they are the only peer with a copy of this message. I refer to this as an "active fingerprinting attack" in this document.

Mitigation of active fingerprinting attacks

Stochastic spray and wait differs in that the recipient of a message randomly adjusts the number of copies of each message they receive. This adjustment may include the recipient destroying their only copy and never advertising or delivering it. The relay never learns how the count was adjusted. This adjustment helps mitigate active fingerprinting attacks by preventing the attacker from knowing exactly how many copies of a message are on the network.

Additionally, Liminality defines a maximum TTL of 72 hours. Since nodes do not timestamp their messages at the network level, i.e., in plaintext, a node begins this TTL timer when it receives a new message for the first time. Implementations may choose a shorter TTL if desired. Shorter TTLs make the effects of an active fingerprinting attack shorter-lived.

Format of noise messages

Data from the application layer is packaged into a noise message along with some metadata that nodes use to synchronize channel state during periods of intermittent connectivity. The plaintext inserted into a noise message uses the following format:

Bytes Field name Purpose
0:3 Packet number A big-endian 32-bit integer containing the number of packets before this one sent through the channel by this packet's sender. Each direction in a channel will have independent sequence numbers.
4 Command byte Describes the type of packet contained in all subsequent data.
5 Capabilities byte Describes the capabilities of the sender.
6: Payload Contains the payload of the message. The meaning of this payload is different for different values of the command byte.

The following command bytes are defined:

Value Command name Payload description
0 Message Raw data from the application layer.
1 Retransmit Flat list of big endian 32-bit packet numbers that the node wants its peer to retransmit.
2-255 Reserved Reserved

Capabilities are boolean flags packed into 8 bits.

Bit Capability name Description
7 RTC The sender has an RTC available with an accurate time and date (within an hour).
6 Gateway The sender has direct access to the internet.
5:0 Reserved Reserved

Routing state machine

Authoring messages

Messages may be authored at any time by any node. When authored, a message enters a node's advertisement and delivery offer sets.

Beaconing, association and disassociation

Each node announces an 802.15.4g network by emitting beacon packets every 180 seconds unless a user has forced the node to obey radio silence. After sending a beacon packet, a node should respond to association requests for the announced network for at least 180 seconds but no longer than 15 minutes. Nodes should rotate identifiers they use to beacon at a 15-minute interval and under no circumstances less often than one hour. When a node, Alice, detects a new network beaconed by node Bob, she may choose to connect to Bob's network to exchange data. Nodes enter and leave other nodes' networks opportunistically.

Advertising messages

After associating to a new network, a node should advertise the messages they have copies of by transmitting one or more advertisement packets.

Transmitting messages

A message should be transmitted after an advertisement is received missing that message, assuming the transmitting node has copies to share proactively. Messages are also transmitted in response to message requests.

A message transmitted during the spray phase is conveyed verbatim, regardless of whether the transmitting node is the author or a relay. In contrast, a message transmitted in response to a delivery request has its message ID replaced with the message ID used in its delivery offer. This replacement ensures that a passive adversary observing message delivery cannot correlate the delivered message with any of its advertisements because they will lack the correct input to the blake2s function used during the spray phase.

If a node receives a message via a proactive message distribution, it must continue distributing copies until it has only one remaining. Additionally, the message must remain in the recipient's delivery offer set until its TTL expires, even if the node is the recipient of that message.

Offering delivery

Nodes offer delivery of messages after advertisements are exchanged and messages in the spray phase have been transferred. Delivery offers are constructed according to the algorithm described in the wire format section.

Requesting messages

A peer may request after delivery offers are exchanged. Messages received via a message request must enter a node's delivery offer set regardless of whether the request is genuine or made as chaff.

Typical message exchange

A typical encounter between Liminality peers follows:

  1. Peer A beacons according to 802.15.4g.
  2. Peer A waits and returns to step 1 if there are no association requests.
  3. Peer B associates with Peer A's network.
  4. Peer B advertises the messages it has available for distribution.
  5. Peer A transmits messages it has copies of that are not in Peer B's advertisement
  6. Peer A advertises the messages available for delivery, omitting those it just transmitted.
  7. Peer B transmits messages it has copies of that are not in Peer A's advertisement
  8. Peer B transmits message delivery offers corresponding to messages in its delivery offer set.
  9. Peer A responds by requesting messages belonging to one of its active channels and chaff, if applicable.
  10. Peer B transmits the requested messages.
  11. Peer A transmits delivery offers corresponding to messages in its delivery offer set.
  12. Peer B requests messages.
  13. Peer A transmits the requested messages.
  14. Peer B disassociates.

Bootstrapping a new channel

If Alice wants to talk to Bob, she must ask Bob out-of-band for a 32-byte noise public key and a 32-byte big-endian scalar value that Bob will use as s₀ to determine if any particular message on the network is from Alice. Alice will use this s₀ for her initial message, but each subsequent message in their channel will calculate s₀ from their handshake hash.

Channel de-synchronization

If either node in a channel does not have an RTC, message IDs will be entirely dependant on the sequence number, meaning either peer going offline for an extended period of time and missing 64 or more messages will be unable to re-establish bidirectional communication. The workaround for this is to include an RTC on any hardware implementing this protocol.

Implementation gotchas

  1. Each node must maintain a list of handshake hashes they've seen in the past and must not respond to any incoming handshake request with a handshake hash identical to one they've seen previously. A duplicate handshake hash would indicate a replay attack according to the note under property 3 of the noise protocol specification, section 7.8.
  2. Each node must maintain a list of message IDs they've seen before, and must not issue message requests for messages they've seen already. Specifically, they must maintain a list of s₀ values for messages they've received. This prevents replay attacks, which could otherwise allow attackers to trigger message requests from a given node at will.
  3. A node should not issue a message request for a particular message ID's s₀ value more than three times. This ensures that any malicious actor trying to follow a node around the network can't do so more than three times.
  4. Implementations with human users should allow those users to block or ignore channels they are no longer interested in maintaining.
  5. Implementations with human users should notify the user that a peer may be acting maliciously if the implementation has requested messages from that peer's channel more than ten times without any message deliveries. This counter should reset for each successful message delivery. This reduces the risk of an attacker who has obtained a peer's keys being able to track a user through physical space.

Feedback!

Please feel free to reach out if you have feedback. You can reach me at: [my first name]@[my github username].me

Footnotes

  1. http://archive.today/2013.01.30-230311/http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/29/technology/internet/29cutoff.html?_r=0 ↩

  2. http://archive.today/2023.09.08-125532/https://www.wsj.com/amp/articles/americans-cellphones-targeted-in-secret-u-s-spy-program-1415917533 ↩

  3. http://archive.today/2019.12.23-235637/https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/12/21/opinion/location-data-democracy-protests.html ↩

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    Connecting to different PHY

    Hi, How should I start to test it with "dump pipe" modems for HF radio like VARA or ardop? Do you think it is worth taking a look on it from my side? I'm currently using UUCP, but I'd like to add some synchronous (or almost) to the network.

    opened by rafael2k 2
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Ellen Poe
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Ellen Poe
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