Preventing Encrypted Traffic Analysis

Nabil Schear

Ph.D. Disseratation - University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Committee in Charge: Nikita Borisov (chair), Karen Bintz Ph.D., Matthew Caesar, Carl A. Gunter, David M. Nicol


Many existing encrypted Internet protocols leak information through packet sizes and timing. Though seemingly innocuous, prior work has shown that such leakage can be used to recover part or all of the plaintext being encrypted. The prevalence of encrypted protocols as the underpinning of such critical services as e-commerce, remote login, and anonymity networks and the increasing feasibility of attacks on these services represent a considerable risk to communications security. Existing mechanisms for preventing traffic analysis focus on re-routing and padding. These prevention techniques have considerable resource and overhead requirements. Furthermore, padding is easily detectable and, in some cases, can introduce its own vulnerabilities.

To address these shortcomings, we propose embedding real traffic in synthetically generated encrypted cover traffic. Novel to our approach is our use of realistic network protocol behavior models to generate cover traffic. The observable traffic we generate also has the benefit of being indistinguishable from other real encrypted traffic further thwarting an adversary's ability to target attacks. In this dissertation, we introduce the design of a proxy system called TrafficMimic that implements realistic cover traffic tunneling and can be used alone or integrated with the Tor anonymity system. We describe the cover traffic generation process including the subtleties of implementing a secure traffic generator. We show that TrafficMimic cover traffic can fool a complex protocol classification attack with 91% of the accuracy of real traffic. TrafficMimic cover traffic is also not detected by a binary classification attack specifically designed to detect TrafficMimic.

We evaluate the performance of tunneling with independent cover traffic models and find that they are comparable, and, in some cases, more efficient than generic constant-rate defenses. We then use simulation and analytic modeling to understand the performance of cover traffic tunneling more deeply. We find that we can take measurements from real or simulated traffic with no tunneling and use them to estimate parameters for an accurate analytic model of the performance impact of cover traffic tunneling. Once validated, we use this model to better understand how delay, bandwidth, tunnel slowdown, and stability affect cover traffic tunneling.

Finally, we take the insights from our simulation study and develop several biasing techniques that we can use to match the cover traffic to the real traffic while simultaneously bounding external information leakage. We study these bias methods using simulation and evaluate their security using a Bayesian inference attack. We find that we can safely improve performance with biasing while preventing both traffic analysis and defense detection attacks. We then apply these biasing methods to the real TrafficMimic implementation and evaluate it on the Internet. We find that biasing can provide 3-5x improvement in bandwidth for bulk transfers and 2.5-9.5x speedup for Web browsing over tunneling without biasing.