Protocol overview

In this section, we outline the hidden service protocol. This section omits some details in the name of simplicity; those are given more fully below, when we specify the protocol in more detail.

View from 10,000 feet

A hidden service host prepares to offer a hidden service by choosing several Tor nodes to serve as its introduction points. It builds circuits to those nodes, and tells them to forward introduction requests to it using those circuits.

Once introduction points have been picked, the host builds a set of documents called "hidden service descriptors" (or just "descriptors" for short) and uploads them to a set of HSDir nodes. These documents list the hidden service's current introduction points and describe how to make contact with the hidden service.

When a client wants to connect to a hidden service, it first chooses a Tor node at random to be its "rendezvous point" and builds a circuit to that rendezvous point. If the client does not have an up-to-date descriptor for the service, it contacts an appropriate HSDir and requests such a descriptor.

The client then builds an anonymous circuit to one of the hidden service's introduction points listed in its descriptor, and gives the introduction point an introduction request to pass to the hidden service. This introduction request includes the target rendezvous point and the first part of a cryptographic handshake.

Upon receiving the introduction request, the hidden service host makes an anonymous circuit to the rendezvous point and completes the cryptographic handshake. The rendezvous point connects the two circuits, and the cryptographic handshake gives the two parties a shared key and proves to the client that it is indeed talking to the hidden service.

Once the two circuits are joined, the client can use Tor relay cells to deliver relay messages to the server: Whenever the rendezvous point receives as relay cell from one of the circuits, it transmits it to the other. (It accepts both RELAY and RELAY_EARLY cells, and retransmits them all as RELAY cells.)

The two parties use these relay messages to implement Tor's usual application stream protocol: RELAY_BEGIN messages open streams to an external process or processes configured by the server; RELAY_DATA messages are used to communicate data on those streams, and so forth.

In more detail: naming hidden services

A hidden service's name is its long term master identity key. This is encoded as a hostname by encoding the entire key in Base 32, including a version byte and a checksum, and then appending the string ".onion" at the end. The result is a 56-character domain name.

(This is a change from older versions of the hidden service protocol, where we used an 80-bit truncated SHA1 hash of a 1024 bit RSA key.)

The names in this format are distinct from earlier names because of their length. An older name might look like:


   And a new name following this specification might look like:


   Please see section [ONIONADDRESS] for the encoding specification.

In more detail: Access control

Access control for a hidden service is imposed at multiple points through the process above. Furthermore, there is also the option to impose additional client authorization access control using pre-shared secrets exchanged out-of-band between the hidden service and its clients.

The first stage of access control happens when downloading HS descriptors. Specifically, in order to download a descriptor, clients must know which blinded signing key was used to sign it. (See the next section for more info on key blinding.)

To learn the introduction points, clients must decrypt the body of the hidden service descriptor. To do so, clients must know the unblinded public key of the service, which makes the descriptor unusable by entities without that knowledge (e.g. HSDirs that don't know the onion address).

Also, if optional client authorization is enabled, hidden service descriptors are superencrypted using each authorized user's identity x25519 key, to further ensure that unauthorized entities cannot decrypt it.

In order to make the introduction point send a rendezvous request to the service, the client needs to use the per-introduction-point authentication key found in the hidden service descriptor.

The final level of access control happens at the server itself, which may decide to respond or not respond to the client's request depending on the contents of the request. The protocol is extensible at this point: at a minimum, the server requires that the client demonstrate knowledge of the contents of the encrypted portion of the hidden service descriptor. If optional client authorization is enabled, the service may additionally require the client to prove knowledge of a pre-shared private key.

In more detail: Distributing hidden service descriptors.

Periodically, hidden service descriptors become stored at different locations to prevent a single directory or small set of directories from becoming a good DoS target for removing a hidden service.

For each period, the Tor directory authorities agree upon a collaboratively generated random value. (See section 2.3 for a description of how to incorporate this value into the voting practice; generating the value is described in other proposals, including [SHAREDRANDOM-REFS].) That value, combined with hidden service directories' public identity keys, determines each HSDir's position in the hash ring for descriptors made in that period.

Each hidden service's descriptors are placed into the ring in positions based on the key that was used to sign them. Note that hidden service descriptors are not signed with the services' public keys directly. Instead, we use a key-blinding system [KEYBLIND] to create a new key-of-the-day for each hidden service. Any client that knows the hidden service's public identity key can derive these blinded signing keys for a given period. It should be impossible to derive the blinded signing key lacking that knowledge.

This is achieved using two nonces:

    * A "credential", derived from the public identity key KP_hs_id.

    * A "subcredential", derived from the credential N_hs_cred
      and information which various with the current time period.

The body of each descriptor is also encrypted with a key derived from the public signing key.

To avoid a "thundering herd" problem where every service generates and uploads a new descriptor at the start of each period, each descriptor comes online at a time during the period that depends on its blinded signing key. The keys for the last period remain valid until the new keys come online.

In more detail: Scaling to multiple hosts

This design is compatible with our current approaches for scaling hidden services. Specifically, hidden service operators can use onionbalance to achieve high availability between multiple nodes on the HSDir layer. Furthermore, operators can use proposal 255 to load balance their hidden services on the introduction layer. See [SCALING-REFS] for further discussions on this topic and alternative designs.

1.6. In more detail: Backward compatibility with older hidden service

This design is incompatible with the clients, server, and hsdir node protocols from older versions of the hidden service protocol as described in rend-spec.txt. On the other hand, it is designed to enable the use of older Tor nodes as rendezvous points and introduction points.

In more detail: Keeping crypto keys offline

In this design, a hidden service's secret identity key may be stored offline. It's used only to generate blinded signing keys, which are used to sign descriptor signing keys.

In order to operate a hidden service, the operator can generate in advance a number of blinded signing keys and descriptor signing keys (and their credentials; see [DESC-OUTER] and [HS-DESC-ENC] below), and their corresponding descriptor encryption keys, and export those to the hidden service hosts.

As a result, in the scenario where the Hidden Service gets compromised, the adversary can only impersonate it for a limited period of time (depending on how many signing keys were generated in advance).

It's important to not send the private part of the blinded signing key to the Hidden Service since an attacker can derive from it the secret master identity key. The secret blinded signing key should only be used to create credentials for the descriptor signing keys.

(NOTE: although the protocol allows them, offline keys are not implemented as of

In more detail: Encryption Keys And Replay Resistance

To avoid replays of an introduction request by an introduction point, a hidden service host must never accept the same request twice. Earlier versions of the hidden service design used an authenticated timestamp here, but including a view of the current time can create a problematic fingerprint. (See proposal 222 for more discussion.)

In more detail: A menagerie of keys

[In the text below, an "encryption keypair" is roughly "a keypair you can do Diffie-Hellman with" and a "signing keypair" is roughly "a keypair you can do ECDSA with."]

Public/private keypairs defined in this document:

      Master (hidden service) identity key -- A master signing keypair
        used as the identity for a hidden service.  This key is long
        term and not used on its own to sign anything; it is only used
        to generate blinded signing keys as described in [KEYBLIND]
        and [SUBCRED]. The public key is encoded in the ".onion"
        address according to [NAMING].
        KP_hs_id, KS_hs_id.

      Blinded signing key -- A keypair derived from the identity key,
        used to sign descriptor signing keys. It changes periodically for
        each service. Clients who know a 'credential' consisting of the
        service's public identity key and an optional secret can derive
        the public blinded identity key for a service.  This key is used
        as an index in the DHT-like structure of the directory system
        (see [SUBCRED]).
        KP_hs_blind_id, KS_hs_blind_id.

      Descriptor signing key -- A key used to sign hidden service
        descriptors.  This is signed by blinded signing keys. Unlike
        blinded signing keys and master identity keys, the secret part
        of this key must be stored online by hidden service hosts. The
        public part of this key is included in the unencrypted section
        of HS descriptors (see [DESC-OUTER]).
        KP_hs_desc_sign, KS_hs_desc_sign.

      Introduction point authentication key -- A short-term signing
        keypair used to identify a hidden service's session at a given
        introduction point. The service makes a fresh keypair for each
        introduction point; these are used to sign the request that a
        hidden service host makes when establishing an introduction
        point, so that clients who know the public component of this key
        can get their introduction requests sent to the right
        service. No keypair is ever used with more than one introduction
        point. (previously called a "service key" in rend-spec.txt)
        KP_hs_ipt_sid, KS_hs_ipt_sid
        ("hidden service introduction point session id").

      Introduction point encryption key -- A short-term encryption
        keypair used when establishing connections via an introduction
        point. Plays a role analogous to Tor nodes' onion keys. The service
        makes a fresh keypair for each introduction point.
        KP_hss_ntor, KS_hss_ntor.

      Ephemeral descriptor encryption key -- A short-lived encryption
        keypair made by the service, and used to encrypt the inner layer
        of hidden service descriptors when client authentication is in
        KP_hss_desc_enc, KS_hss_desc_enc
   Nonces defined in this document:

      N_hs_desc_enc -- a nonce used to derive keys to decrypt the inner
        encryption layer of hidden service descriptors.  This is
        sometimes also called a "descriptor cookie".

   Public/private keypairs defined elsewhere:

      Onion key -- Short-term encryption keypair (KS_ntor, KP_ntor).

      (Node) identity key (KP_relayid).

   Symmetric key-like things defined elsewhere:

      KH from circuit handshake -- An unpredictable value derived as
      part of the Tor circuit extension handshake, used to tie a request
      to a particular circuit.

In even more detail: Client authorization keys

When client authorization is enabled, each authorized client of a hidden service has two more asymmetric keypairs which are shared with the hidden service. An entity without those keys is not able to use the hidden service. Throughout this document, we assume that these pre-shared keys are exchanged between the hidden service and its clients in a secure out-of-band fashion.

Specifically, each authorized client possesses:

   - An x25519 keypair used to compute decryption keys that allow the client to
     decrypt the hidden service descriptor. See [HS-DESC-ENC].  This is
     the client's counterpart to KP_hss_desc_enc.
     KP_hsc_desc_enc, KS_hsd_desc_enc.

   - An ed25519 keypair which allows the client to compute signatures which
     prove to the hidden service that the client is authorized. These
     signatures are inserted into the INTRODUCE1 message, and without them the
     introduction to the hidden service cannot be completed. See [INTRO-AUTH].
     KP_hsc_intro_auth, KS_hsc_intro_auth.

The right way to exchange these keys is to have the client generate keys and send the corresponding public keys to the hidden service out-of-band. An easier but less secure way of doing this exchange would be to have the hidden service generate the keypairs and pass the corresponding private keys to its clients. See section [CLIENT-AUTH-MGMT] for more details on how these keys should be managed.

[TODO: Also specify stealth client authorization.]

(NOTE: client authorization is implemented as of