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Cracking the SNI encryption nut

12 Sep 2017

Back in May and June this year, I was reviewing the state of SNI encryption. I found in reviewing the archives of the TLS mailing list. I collected the list of attacks that demonstrated holes in previous proposals, and documented them in an Internet draft ( that has just been adopted as a work item by the TLS working group ( The draft also listed two proposals that have resisted attacks so far, one based in a form of TLS in TLS tunneling, and the other based on extended session resume tokens. But something kept bothering me. Both proposals are complex to implement, the session resume token proposal does not cover the first connection between a user and a hidden node, and the tunneling proposal is difficult to extend to protocols like QUIC that use TLS but do not use TCP. In short, SNI encryption is a tough nut to crack. But I think that I have cracked that nut. Let's introduce the proposed solution, the SNI and ALPN Encryption eXtension (SAEX).

The idea of SAEX is to have a mutable extension that can be carried in the Client Hello. The extension takes two forms: a clear text form, and an encrypted form. The clear text form contains the real SNI, the real ALPN, and a Nonce. The encrypted form is a string of bytes that only the receiver of the client hello can decode. When the client ask the TLS stack to prepare the Client Hello message, it includes the clear text form of the SAEX extension in the message, but prior to actually sending that message on the wire it substitute the encrypted form. Similarly, when the server receives the Client Hello message, it decodes the encrypted value of the SAEX extension and substitutes the clear text form. The server then passes the Client Hello for further processing to the subsystem identified by the "real SNI" named in the SAEX extension.

The most vexing of the various threats listed in the draft ( is probably the replay attack. The adversary just observes the token carrying the encrypted SNI and replays it in its own Client Hello. If the connection succeeds, it learns the identity of the hidden site by observing the certificate or the web pages returned by the server. SAEX is robust against that attack when using TLS 1.3, because all the secrets computed by TLS depend on the content of the Client Hello, which with SAEX include the clear text form of the extension. The adversaries can only observe the encrypted form of the extension. They could guess the value of the SNI and ALPN, but they cannot guess the nonce. That means that they can replay the encrypted extension, but they won't be able to understand the server's responses and determine the server's identity.

There is one threat in the list that SAEX cannot mitigate, the issue of standing out. A Client Hello that carries the SAEX extension will automatically look different from one that doesn't. Opinions varies about the importance of this issue. On one hand, we can see censors ordering their great firewalls to drop all packets carrying the extension, forcing users to choose between connectivity and privacy. On the other hand, if some big services adopted the extension, this censoring strategy would be very costly. On balance, it is probably worth trying.

Of course, there are many details to get right. The clients need to obtain both the clear text and the encrypted value of the extension before starting the connection, and that needs to be properly engineered. The server could use a variety of encryption methods, with diverse properties. Used improperly, the nonce in the extension could serve as a cookie that identifies the user. But working groups are good at ironing out this kind of issues. And at least, the SAEX design proves that we can solve the SNI encryption issue. That tough nut can be cracked.

*Correction, March 2, 2018*

It turns out that this kind of solution has a big downside, which is explained in the latest version of If someone replays the connection attempt, it will fail because they don't have access to the encryption key in the extension. That failure protects the user somewhat, but it also tells the adversary that there was something hiding there. And then who knows what kind of questions the secret police will be asking...