This is an "unfunded mandate", I'm afraid; I can't work on this. And
it's a reasonable amount of work.
It is, however, based on a long, long acquaintance with the problem
space. This is something I was thinking about doing for the old
Zero-Knowledge Freedom system back in 2000, because of bugs we kept
finding and attacks we kept coming up with.
If you want to discuss this, I'm jbash at-sign velvet period com .
# The Problem
A lot of code runs inside amnesia: big programs like Web browsers,
Pidgin (with plugins), OpenOffice (eek!), etc. Each of those programs
will (not may, but definitely will) have security holes that will leak
the real IP address of the machine, and possibly other information.
They will also have holes that will allow remote sites to execute
arbitrary code sent back through Tor connections. This code can then
grovel through /sys, /proc, and wherever else, and extract an endless
number of hardware serial numbers, MAC addresses, unique combinations
of configuration elements, and so forth, any of which may identify the
user's machine to the remote attacker. That's especially true if the
remote attacker is in a position to ask a manufacturer who bought a
given piece of hardware, but that's not the only way of using the
Exploit code can also try to disable or circumvent the local firewall
and send traffic that doesn't go through Tor. There are a lot of
tricks for doing this, especially because all it takes is one packet,
sent from any part of the system, to a chosen destination without
going through Tor.
# The Partial Solution
Split amnesia into two parts: an outer, host part running on the
user's real hardware, and an inner, guest part running in a virtual
machine. Keep all information about the real identity of the user or
the user's computer in the outer machine. Keep all applications in the
inner machine. Mount any storage meant to be writable by the inner
machine as a virtual device provided by the outer machine. If you
encrypt the writable storage, the crypto should probably run on the
outer machine, so that the inner machine doesn't need to have access
to the key.
Ship the entire inner virtual machine image as part of amnesia, so
that each instance is identical in every way that can be seen from
inside... so, for example, the inner machine might always have MAC
address 00:11:22:33:44:55 , and IP address 10.1.2.3.
Make sure that the face presented to the inner machine by the outer
machine is also always the same; for example, the inner machine might
always see the outer machine as a default router at MAC
00:55:44:33:22:11, with an IP address of 10.1.2.1. You don't want any
information about the outer machine to leak to the inner machine via,
say, ARP, or DHCP, or any weird management protocol.
The outer machine should run the hypervisor, and all code that has to
talk to the "real" network: link-layer supplicants, DHCP client, NTP,
Tor itself. The inner machine should be able to connect only to the
Tor port of the outer machine. The outer machine should have a
firewall configured such that no traffic can ever be relayed directly
from the inner machine to the network. The only way the inner machine
can talk to anything should be through Tor.
This includes traffic to the local LAN, BTW; local LAN commmunication
is a huge security hole, because it's usually easy to get a machine on
the local LAN to send something to the outside for you, identifying
the user in the process.
The inner machine can and almost certainly should be aware that it's
talking through a SOCKS proxy. Trying to be transparent using firewall
diversion hacks will probably break more things than it fixes.
# Remaining Holes
This change reduces the attack surface a lot, but it's still subject
to attack through bugs in Tor, bugs in the hypervisor, bugs in the
outer machine's IP stack, and bugs in the kernel on the outer machine.
Oh, and bugs in the hardware. The good news is that you have to crack
the applications before you can attack any of those, so there's some
defense in depth; it takes knowledge of two unpatched bugs, instead of
just one, to actually nail the user.
The hypervisor used should be as simple as possible. I don't know
about Virtualbox, but VMWare is a nightmare of complexity and
guaranteed to be full of holes. qemu might be a better bet than
either, simply because it's not so loaded down with features, and does
fewer things to "help" you (and potentially leak information).
# Interacting With User Virtualization
It's presumably an important use case to have users run amnesia inside
of virtual machines that are part of the users' regular enviroments.
As far as I know, no X86 virtualization system will let you nest VMs,
so that implies that you can't do this trick when amnesia is run under
the user's hypervisor. Probably the "best" solution would be to
reconfigure the user's environment to provide the necessary services
to the amnesia internal virtual machine, but that's also probably an
unsupportable release nightmare. The alternative would be to fall back
to something like the way things work now, with Tor running inside the
virtual machine... but to warn the user that she was operating with
* [A Tor Virtual Machine Design and
aka TorVM design document
#A promising, alternative solution: Qubes
Qubes is Fedora spin off which takes [security by isolation to the extreme](http://qubes-os.org/Architecture.html): a Xen hypervizor manages user defined "lightweight virtual machines" or "AppVMs" that isolate user processes, and even certain system-components like the network stack, from each other. Appropriate IPC, file and clip-board sharing supposedly works between programs in different AppVMs.
One fine thing with this approach is that it most likely would be easy to fallback to starting processes without these AppVMs in case it's detected that Tails itself runs inside a VM.
The two key questions that remain to answer is:
1. if these AppVMs can be "NAT:ed" or similarly made oblivious to the system interfaces' IP addresses.
2. if all this can be incorporated into Debian without too much trouble.
Read more at their [homepage](http://qubes-os.org/) and [wiki](http://www.qubes-os.org/trac/wiki).
# Comment from jbash 2010-02-22
I was asked to comment on the Qubes proposal above, and specifically on
the two questions about NAT and "adapting to Debian". This has gotten
too long for a comments page
## On Qubes
On Qubes in general: it looks like a cool system and a useful
approach. I think you could easily put a "Tails VM" (more
properly a "Tor VM") into it in place of the "Net VM". Since
you're going to be hacking all over that VM anyhow, no problem to add
NAT to it.
... but there's a caveat: I'd be very careful about becoming dependent
on a small project with limited adoption. You could end up having to
take on all of the maintenance and development of Qubes itself. The
alternative would be having to port off of Qubes, which argues for not
becoming dependent on it. Also, you may have trouble finding people who
are willing to learn Qubes before they can start working. I suspect that
you might be better advised to come up with something that could run
with a variety of VM providers.
As for whether you could adapt the application VMs to run Debian,
I guess I'd ask "why do you want to adapt to Debian, particularly?".
You'd be undoing a lot of Qubes' work to put a big unconfined
Debian system in there.
Since I wrote the initial suggestion, I've actually been thinking, off
an on, about a two-VM alternative with a structure vaguely similar to the
Qubes idea, and I think one of the good things about that idea equally
applies to using Qubes. That good thing is that is that you don't
have to really care about "adapting to Debian" any more. At all.
## Getting off the distro treadmill
The insights are that:
1. If the application VM doesn't have to handle the user's "real" identity, and doesn't necessarily have to handle any data that persist between sessions, then there's much less pressure to do anything special in the application VM to protect anonymity.
2. It's possible to set up Tor as a transparent Internet gateway, so that clients don't have to even be configured to use a SOCKS proxy. [Here's a HOWTO.](https://trac.torproject.org/projects/tor/wiki/TheOnionRouter/TransparentProxy)
That means you can get out of the business of patching up a whole
distribution to get everything to use Tor properly. You need to
stay current on general security updates, but that's about it,
especially if you don't enable the applications to write to any
storage. In fact, you don't even have to configure anything to
Instead, you provide two very minimal, targeted environments: a VM
to run Tor (this would replace the "NetVM" in Qubes), and a host environment
to run the hypervisor (this would be Qubes', and Xen's, "dom0")
Here's a slightly tweaked version of my block diagram, which is
obviously very similar to Qubes'.:
[[!img virtails.png alt="Block diagram"]]
### The host
The way I've drawn it, the host:
1. Runs the hypervisor (and is therefore responsible for network, device, and memory isolation).
2. Handles storage crypto (so that the application VM doesn't have to know any keys that might be useful beyond the current session).
3. Handles the user's choices about whether any writable storage is available to the application VM (if you allow the user that choice)
4. Keeeps the time of day accurate for everybody.
5. Presumably handles other houskeeping functions, like cleaning memory.
If the user wanted to, she could even use her own "regular" system
as the host, and boot the Tor and application VMs within that.
She'd better look to her swap encryption, and she'd better know
what's going on generally, but she can do it.
Veering back in the direction of better security, it looks like
the Qubes people have been careful to have the host do a good job
of isolating the VMs, for example not permitting the very large
security hole of direct 3D graphic access from the VMs. Even if you
didn't use Qubes, it sounds like they'd be a good project to learn
### The Tor VM
The Tor VM handles all communication between the application VM
and the outside world.
When the application VM boots, the Tor VM gives it an address using
DHCP. The application VM uses the Tor VM as its default gateway and
Internally, the Tor VM diverts DNS requests and all TCP connections
originating on the application side to Tor, which transparently
anonymizes them. IP filtering prevents the application VM from sending
anything else (and can be used to filter out "bad" traffic, as well, if
need be). Probably the filter should also stop any unexpected traffic
generated from within the Tor VM from being sent on the application
side, as well.
Kernel IP forwarding is totally disabled. Filtering on the Internet
side prevents any process other than Tor from sending any packets
whatsoever to the Internet. Much ICMP should probably also be filtered,
just in case. Traffic *from* the Internet is limited to return
traffic on TCP connections opened by Tor (maybe later it could be extended
to act as a relay, too).
You could clamp this down still further using SELinux.
Since it has access to Tor and all its secrets, Vidalia runs in the Tor VM.
That means the user has to do a console switch to see it. I don't see
that as a big problem; YMMV. You definitely could NOT run it in the
### The application VM
With this sort of approach, the application VM *only* runs
applications. It has no idea of the real IP address, or even of
any machine's real MAC address. It doesn't know anything that identifies
the user unless the user types it in.
As a result, the application VM can be anything at all.
Windows, if you really wanted to use it. What I'd actually use would be a stock
Ubuntu LiveCD, for the following reasons:
1. It's widespread, and it, or close variants of it, are probably what people are booting behind various homebrew Tor proxies right now. So you may get a larger anonymity set.
2. It's very actively maintained... which means you're going to get upstream security patches.
I could see a very good case for staying with Debian, though, to avoid
Ubuntu's feature creep.
But I suggest that it can nonetheless be *stock* Debian,
absolutely unmodified from the latest upstream release.
1. That would conserve important resources for Tails-specific development
2. I suspect it would also speed up the process of propagating upstream fixes... which is probably the single best thing you can do for the security of the application VM.
3. It would also discipline you to being client-agnostic, which would mean that others could grab your images (especially the Tor VM image) and reuse them for other things.
# Update October 2012
New developments in other projects:
* [Qubes OS + Tor](http://theinvisiblethings.blogspot.com/2011/09/playing-with-qubes-networking-for-fun.html): detailed instructions on how to set up transparent Tor proxy with Qubes OS.; lacks considerations for identity correlation though circuit sharing
* [Whonix](http://whonix.sourceforge.net/): Anonymous General Purpose Operating System; Isolating and Transparent Tor proxy based on Virtual Box, Debian GNU/Linux and Tor; not a live system
> There are many users who would be able to set this up themselves, see [[todo/amd64_kernel]], the virtualisation software can be stored in the persistent storage and installed after booting a tails livecd. As long as the tails kernel supports running virtualisation software, the features in this document can be used today by a great many users