December 20, 2015

A Discussion of Confidentiality and Privacy in CCN and TCP/IP

In recent years, confidentiality and privacy have become relatively intertwined in practice. To be clear, confidentiality is a property of data which guarantees that said data is not disclosed to anyone without the owner’s consent. Conversely, privacy is a property of users which states that the actions, behaviors, or any personal information of a particular user are not visible to unauthorized parties. In the context of networking, we are concerned with the privacy of people using the network, where the observable information lies in the traffic that they send and receive. In this way, privacy is more relevant to the transfer of data since, naturally, it is data and metadata in transit that is subject to surveillance [1]. Surveillance is possible because we rely on networks such as the Internet to communicate with the outside world. The actions performed on a device that is disconnected from the network are private since they are not subject to surveillance. It then seems that the coupling of privacy and confidentiality are an artifact of the network protocols used for communication, which are inherently subject to possibly malicious eavesdroppers (i.e., Big Brother).

In this post I will explain why confidentiality is a necessary though not sufficient condition for privacy. To begin, first consider why confidentiality is needed for privacy. If the traffic between a web browser and banking service was not encrypted, then it would be trivial for an eavesdropper to learn the details of a given session and, as a result, learn what the user was doing in that session. In this context, privacy is not possible without hiding the details of the traffic. However, encryption alone is not sufficient. Suppose what could happen if clients hid the details of their activity using some form of deterministic encryption, e.g., CPA-secure RSA, using a shared public key. The properties of this encryption algorithm mean that for any two identical plaintext inputs the output ciphertexts will be identical. If two users hide requests for some shared resource using encryption with the same public key, then these obfuscated requests will be identical on the wire. To an eavesdropper who can only passively observe packets in transit between clients and a server, it is easy to deduce that some pair of clients asked for the same resource. How does this knowledge relate to privacy? First, if these encrypted requests correspond to some well-known resource, any adversary may guess the resource, compute the encrypted form, and compare it to the observed form to verify the guess. Secondly, the fact that some request matches that of another client reveals distinctly more information than that of the request.

Today, the trend is to encrypt all web traffic using some form of CCA-secure encryption algorithm backed by forward secret keys derived from some key exchange protocol. CCA security, or chosen-ciphertext attack security, roughly means that no two identical inputs for an encryption algorithm will yield the same output (with negligible probability). Forward secrecy means that short-term or ephemeral session keys are safe even in the event that the long-term secrets used in the key exchange protocol are compromised. These two properties are realized by TLS, the standard transport layer security protocol used to encrypt TCP traffic which encompasses much of the Internet. DTLS (datagram TLS) and QUIC are two UDP variants which solve the same problem modulo some differentiating features (e.g., secure source address tokens in QUIC). In fact, TLS 1.3 (the latest version) is heavily inspired by QUIC. By using any of these protocols, confidentiality and privacy are intimately related in the current Internet. Many web applications to do not add additional layers of encryption on top of TLS to protect content.

It should be possible to decouple confidentiality and privacy and, when appropriate, effortlessly enable privacy-preserving technologies. The current TCP/IP communication model makes it easy to couple these two properties. Clients know where to retrieve data or interact with services and simply perform all end-to-end actions within a secure channel. The communication is inherently channel-based and therefore benefits from end-to-end encryption for both confidentiality and privacy.

CCN is different. It’s data-centric communication model makes the separation between confidentiality and privacy more clear since data is fixed to a name and not an address. This means that data can be retrieved from anywhere in the network. To make data confidential, content can be encrypted such that only authorized users can perform decryption. This is typically done by encrypting the payload of a CCNx Content Object message – everything else is left in the clear. Since names explicitly identify a content object, this means that (consumer) privacy is not possible; Any eavesdropper neighboring the consumer can observe the name and learn what content the victim consumer is after.

Enabling private communication in CCN is not as straightforward. Privacy in the presence of eavesdroppers implies that, for any link susceptible to surveillance, a packet must not reveal information about its contents. In TCP/IP, this is done by encrypting everything in the TCP payload (in a TLS record). The only information leaked from a packet is its size (which can be padded – see Section 5.2.3 of [2]) and the source and destination address. In CCN, the equivalent property is that the name only reveals information about the location or service which could have procured the content. I generally refer to this name prefix as the minimal routable prefix since it is the maximal name length that is needed to route an interest to some authoritative producer who can procure the corresponding content. Everything after this prefix, including the payload in both interest and content objects, must be protected with CCA-secure encryption. CCNx-KE [3] is a TLS-like key exchange protocol for CCN that enables this type of private communication based on secure channels. However, it does not solve the problem of identifying the minimal routable prefix.

Thus, data confidentiality mechanisms in CCN and TCP/IP applications are, for all intents and purposes, identical. Privacy is a much more disparate problem though. Recall that, in TCP/IP, communication happens between a pair of end-hosts, be it a client and server or two similar peers in a P2P network. This communication forms a channel between the two end-hosts. Again, the industry momentum is set on encrypting all traffic over these channels using TLS or some similar protocol (TLS is in fact baked into HTTP2). Moreover, the DPRIVE IETF [4] working group is even pushing to encrypt all DNS traffic over TLS or DTLS (depending on the type of transport protocol used).

In CCN, communication happens between a consumer and some entity which contains or can procure the data. There may be more than one entity capable of returning the desired content, e.g., a caching router. Thus, if privacy is desired, a consumer must establish a secure channel between one of these endpoints. But how does a consumer identify the correct endpoint when all it has is the name for some content? How does he or she learn the correct minimal routable prefix? The simple answer is that, currently, there is no easy way. A consumer’s application must come with that information a priori. This is in stark contrast to the TCP/IP model wherein consumers securely and privately obtain server addresses using DNS (with DNSSEC [5] and DANE [6]). There is no guesswork. This means that, today, the problem of private communication is distinctly harder in CCN than it is in TCP/IP.

This problem is to be expected since CCN is about locating and transferring named data rather than locating services that can produce data upon request. Privacy, in this context, necessitates a secure channel between a consumer and some endpoint which can produce data. Moreover, CCN interests are based on data – not services. This underlying problem concerns me as people try to pitch CCN as a “more private” alternative to IP. As an architecture which has claimed to try to replace IP (this probably won’t happen), it should not be more difficult to enable private communication. CCN should at least have parity with IP in this respect.

In the next post I will explore the privacy issue in more depth. Namely, what is the relationship between CCN names and data, services, and the privacy of those who use them? How should namespaces be crafted to enable better privacy? How can consumers learn the minimal routable prefix?


  • [1] S. Farrell and H. Tschofenig. “Pervasive monitoring is an attack.” (2014).
  • [2] E. Rescorla. “The Transport Layer Security (TLS) Protocol Version 1.3.”
  • [3] M. Mosko, E. Uzun, and C. Wood. “CCNx Key Exchange Protocol Version 1.0.”
  • [4] DNS PRIvate Exchange (dprive).
  • [5] G. Ateniese and S. Mangard. “A new approach to DNS security (DNSSEC).” Proceedings of the 8th ACM conference on Computer and Communications Security. ACM, 2001.
  • [6] P. Hoffman and J. Schlyter. “The DNS-Based Authentication of Named Entities (DANE) Transport Layer Security (TLS) Protocol: TLSA.”