VPN⁰: A Privacy-Preserving Distributed Virtual Private Network | Brave Browser

VPN⁰: A Privacy-Preserving Distributed Virtual Private Network

by BraveOct 2, 2019Security & Privacy

This research presents VPN⁰ , the first distributed virtual private network offering a privacy preserving traffic authorization and validation mechanism.

This research was conducted by Dr. Matteo Varvello (Performance Researcher at Brave), Iñigo Querejeta-Azurmendi (intern at Brave), Dr. Panagiotis Papadopoulos (Security Researcher at Brave), Gonçalo Pestana (Research Engineer at Brave) and Dr. Ben Livshits (Brave’s Chief Scientist).

Distributed virtual private networks (dVPNs) are a new form of VPN with no central authority. In a dVPN, users are both VPN clients and relay/exit nodes as in a Peer-to-Peer (P2P) network. While dVPNs make strong privacy claims, they also carry the risk that a user will inadvertently have their machine used to transmit potentially harmful or illegal network traffic. Several incidents have been reported [2] where unaware dVPN users have been (ab)used as exit nodes.

In our prior blog post, we analyzed several dVPN proposals and reported a lack of (i) performance, (ii) privacy guarantees, (iii) traffic accountability. In this post, we tackle these issues by introducing VPN⁰, to the best of our knowledge the first distributed virtual private network offering a privacy preserving traffic authorization and validation system.

VPN⁰ is founded on the idea that dVPN nodes should be able to decide which traffic they want to carry. For example, a dVPN node may only be willing to transmit network traffic related to news websites. To guarantee user privacy, this property should be achieved without learning the contents of the traffic a VPN user is transmitting. VPN⁰ presents a novel method for simultaneously achieving both of these goals.

We have integrated VPN⁰ with BitTorrent’s DHT (Mainline) and ProtonVPN, a popular VPN provider. We demonstrate the feasibility of VPN⁰ and also benchmark its performance with respect to DHT lookup, VPN tunnel setup, and zero-knowledge traffic attestation.

VPN⁰ Design

VPN⁰ allows relay nodes to control which traffic they transmit, without learning what content it contains, through a novel application of zero knowledge proofs. A zero knowledge proof is a cryptographic technique that allows a prover to prove to a verifier that a certain statement is true, without disclosing any information except the validity of the statement. In our case, a VPN⁰ client wants to prove to a VPN⁰ relay that the traffic it is sending is contained within the relay’s whitelist, or a set of domains the relay is willing to carry traffic for.

Several challenges exist to realize this goal in a decentralized system. In the following, we present each challenge along with a high level description of the solution we have devised. The interested reader can find a complete and more technical description of each solution in our article.

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