Point Break: A Study of Bandwidth Denial-of-Service Attacks against Tor


Rob Jansen, U.S. Naval Research Laboratory; Tavish Vaidya and Micah Sherr, Georgetown University


As the Tor network has grown in popularity and importance as a tool for privacy-preserving online communication, it has increasingly become a target for disruption, censorship, and attack. A large body of existing work examines Tor's susceptibility to attacks that attempt to block Tor users' access to information (e.g., via traffic filtering), identify Tor users' communication content (e.g., via traffic fingerprinting), and de-anonymize Tor users (e.g., via traffic correlation). This paper focuses on the relatively understudied threat of denial-of-service (DoS) attacks against Tor, and specifically, DoS attacks that intelligently utilize bandwidth as a means to significantly degrade Tor network performance and reliability.

We demonstrate the feasibility of several bandwidth DoS attacks through live-network experimentation and high-fidelity simulation while quantifying the cost of each attack and its effect on Tor performance. First, we explore an attack against Tor's most commonly used default bridges (for censorship circumvention) and estimate that flooding those that are operational would cost $17K/mo. and could reduce client throughput by 44% while more than doubling bridge maintenance costs. Second, we explore attacks against the TorFlow bandwidth measurement system and estimate that a constant attack against all TorFlow scanners would cost $2.8K/mo. and reduce the median client download rate by 80%. Third, we explore how an adversary could use Tor to congest itself and estimate that such a congestion attack against all Tor relays would cost $1.6K/mo. and increase the median client download time by 47%. Finally, we analyze the effects of Sybil DoS and deanonymization attacks that have costs comparable to those of our attacks.

USENIX Security '19 Open Access Videos Sponsored by
King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST)

Open Access Media

USENIX is committed to Open Access to the research presented at our events. Papers and proceedings are freely available to everyone once the event begins. Any video, audio, and/or slides that are posted after the event are also free and open to everyone. Support USENIX and our commitment to Open Access.

@inproceedings {235459,
author = {Rob Jansen and Tavish Vaidya and Micah Sherr},
title = {Point Break: A Study of Bandwidth {Denial-of-Service} Attacks against Tor},
booktitle = {28th USENIX Security Symposium (USENIX Security 19)},
year = {2019},
isbn = {978-1-939133-06-9},
address = {Santa Clara, CA},
pages = {1823--1840},
url = {https://www.usenix.org/conference/usenixsecurity19/presentation/jansen},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = aug

Presentation Video