IETF 113 Hackathon

In our IETF series, we have contributions from David Oliver of Guardian Project. David has attended several IETF meetings, learning about new protocols that can help advance Pluggable Transports work and benefit censorship circumvention developers.

IETF113 Hackathon Review

By David Oliver of Guardian Project - [email protected], Hans-Christoph Steiner of Guardian Project


We picked up the work originally done by teammate Ali Hussain, got it running in newest Google Conscrypt (TLS for Java/Android), verified its function and created a public open source repository. We presented the work to Hackathon attendees (~50 people), took questions from the general IETF community, and discussed the work with the specification author.


When we initiated our work in this area, it was called MASQUE (Multiplexed Application Substrate over QUIC Encryption). The initial draft discussed the mechanism we describe here, but also addressed some wider ideas. The draft generated a lot of interest in the IETF Transport Area, a Working Group was formed and a broad set of activities - all use cases for proxying over QUIC - was taken on by that group. The working group decided to excise the specific VPN use case – the one we’re most interested in – using a slightly different proposal to be added to HTTP as an extension. That extension is called HTTP Transport Authentication.

Why HTTP Transport Authentication?

HTTP Transport Authentication was proposed with modern HTTP use cases in mind - specifically those that don’t follow the classic request/response model. WebTransport and MASQUE are examples of protocols that leverage the advantages of HTTP but open durable and sometimes interactive protocol flows with other servers. HTTP Transport Authentication is designed to authenticate such protocol flows in a manner that does not reveal any information to an attacker during failure cases. Therefore, applications using HTTP Transport Authentication are resistant to active probing by network adversaries. The specification describes two types of authentication scheme (already common), but also supports extensions for situations where novel authentication schemes are useful or required.

How does HTTP Transport Authentication Work?

HTTP Transport Authentication is defined as a new HTTP Request Header valid for all versions of HTTP. In HTTP/1.1, it is designed to accompany the CONNECT method. The client request arrives at the web server via HTTPS (HTTP over TLS) and, thus, prior to HTTP protocol execution, an encrypted TLS session is available, over which protocol messages flow. HTTP Transport Authentication uses RFC5705 Keying Material Exporters to extract a derivative encryption key from the TLS session, and uses the key to symmetrically encrypt an authentication token presented with the CONNECT verb in the form of a new HTTP header:

Transport-Authorization: Signature a=AVAL; u=UVAL; p=PVAL(encrypted)

The web server receives this request, uses the same technique to extract the same derivative key from the TLS session and uses the key to decrypt the P value in the Transport-Authorization header. If the decrypted value - along with the other information provided- matches an entry on the server side, the server can be satisfied that this client is permitted to use a proxied connection through it to a destination origin server. Failure cases - lack of a Transport-Authentication header, improper encryption of the header, improper authentication information or the request otherwise badly-formed - result in a generic error response (405 Method Not Allowed). Network entities actively probing the web server with badly-formed requests will also receive this generic response - the standard response for web servers that don’t offer CONNECT/proxying at all, making the host offering the service “invisible” in all cases except the success case.

Implementation Details

The popular (and nearly ubiquitous) OpenSSL library - along with its Google counterpart, BoringSSL - implements the function SSL_Export_Keying_Materials() which itself implements the RFC5705 standard. Many higher-level programming libraries and languages bind to one of these implementations for their SSL/TLS support. Java (OpenJDK, Conscrypt, Cronet), Go and Rust are examples. PyOpenSSL for Python binds to OpenSSL, as does Python’s native SSL support, though the latter does not support this specific method. Microsoft’s NSS library supports the function.

SSL_Export_Keying_Materials() takes a string as input (officially, an IANA-defined entry) that it uses to create a derived key from the underlying TLS connection’s master secret. This key, unique to the session, is used by the client to encrypt an authentication token placed in a new HTTP header which the server can decrypt with the same key derived in the same way from its underlying connection. The server then matches that authentication token(s) provided against its records before returning connection status.


Based on earlier work, we wrote an implementation of the new header and its handling without a complete proxied flow. In other words, the client will attempt to CONNECT using this technique, the web server will process the request (yielding failure or success) and immediately close the client’s session. Our demonstration is written in Java (Conscrypt Java for Google Android). Conscrypt itself is unchanged.

Possible Next Steps

An improved - more complete - demonstration would be beneficial. We do not have the funding under this project to complete this work, however. We will explore other opportunities in the Internet Freedom space. Should funding become available, a logical next step is to implement the new function in Python, in an existing open source proxy server. Two are easily available:

  1. Proxy2 (Python), small codebase, simple function:
    • First step would be to get this working with PyOpenSSL (to get the keying material function)
    • Second step would be to add the HTTP TA function
  2. Python Static and Reverse Proxy, slightly richer codebase (reverse proxy functions, too):
    • Same steps as above

Possible Consumers of this Capability

Viewed optimistically given its resistance to probing attacks, HTTP Transport Authentication potentially turns every web server into a VPN tunnel in the same way Encrypted Client Hello potentially turns every web server into a domain front. Many parties implementing Pluggable Transports - VPN service providers, for example - have likely developed special client verification handshakes allowing only designated users and software access to their service infrastructure. HTTP Transport Authentication might offer a standard and more probe-resistant alternative that better “blends in” with standard web server functions. Alternatively, the client and bridge components of the pluggable transport itself could implement HTTP Transport Authentication “privately” between them (using, for example, a private authentication scheme).

Discussion with the Author of the Internet Draft

As expected, the author noted that this work has been sidelined mostly for personal reasons (too much other IETF responsibility including the MASQUE Working Group, the WebTransport Working Group and the Internet Architecture Board), but also because the definition of MASQUE has been fluid for two years and the requirements of those protocol changes have not been fully understood. As the MASQUE work comes to completion (2022), HTTP Transport Authentication might see the light of day again in some modified form, to be decided. In the meantime, the proposal stands as a published and available draft. Our work provides a demonstration code base implementing it.