Most communication on the modern Internet is encrypted to ensure that its content is intelligible only to the endpoints, i.e., client and server. Encryption, however, requires a key and so the endpoints must agree on an encryption key without revealing the key to would-be attackers. The most widely used cryptographic protocol for this task, called key exchange, is the Transport Layer Security (TLS) handshake.
In this post we'll dive into Encrypted Client Hello (ECH), a new extension for TLS that promises to significantly enhance the privacy of this critical Internet protocol. Today, a number of privacy-sensitive parameters of the TLS connection are negotiated in the clear. This leaves a trove of metadata available to network observers, including the endpoints' identities, how they use the connection, and so on.
ECH encrypts the full handshake so that this metadata is kept secret. Crucially, this closes a long-standing privacy leak by protecting the Server Name Indication (SNI) from eavesdroppers on the network. Encrypting the SNI is important because it is the clearest signal of which server a given client is communicating with. However, and perhaps more significantly, ECH also lays the groundwork for adding future security features and performance enhancements to TLS while minimizing their impact on the privacy of end users.
ECH is the product of close collaboration, facilitated by the IETF, between academics and the tech industry leaders, including Cloudflare, our friends at Fastly and Mozilla (both of whom are the affiliations of co-authors of the standard), and many others. This feature represents a significant upgrade to the TLS protocol, one that builds on bleeding edge technologies, like DNS-over-HTTPS, that are only now coming into their own. As such, the protocol is not yet ready for Internet-scale deployment. This article is intended as a sign post on the road to full handshake encryption.
The story of TLS is the story of the Internet. As our reliance on the Internet has grown, so the protocol has evolved to address ever-changing operational requirements, use cases, and threat models. The client and server don't just exchange a key. They negotiate a wide variety of features and parameters: the exact method of key exchange; the encryption algorithm; who is authenticated and how; which application layer protocol to use after the handshake; and much, much more. All of these parameters impact the security properties of the communication channel in one way or another.
SNI is a prime example of a parameter that impacts the channel's security. The SNI extension is used by the client to indicate to the server the website it wants to reach. This is essential for the modern Internet, as it's common nowadays for many origin servers to sit behind a single TLS operator. In this setting, the operator uses the SNI to determine who will authenticate the connection: without it, there would be no way of knowing which TLS certificate to present to the client. The problem is that SNI leaks to the network the identity of the origin server the client wants to connect to, potentially allowing eavesdroppers to infer a lot of information about their communication. (Of course, there are other ways for a network observer to identify the origin — the origin's IP address, for example. But co-locating with other origins on the same IP address makes it much harder to use this metric to determine the origin than it is to simply inspect the SNI.)
Although protecting SNI is the impetus for ECH, it is by no means the only privacy-sensitive handshake parameter that the client and server negotiate. Another is the ALPN extension, which is used to decide which application-layer protocol to use once the TLS connection is established. The client sends the list of applications it supports — whether it's HTTPS, email, instant messaging, or the myriad other applications that use TLS for transport security — and the server selects one from this list, and sends its selection to the client. By doing so, the client and server leak to the network a clear signal of their capabilities and what the connection might be used for.
Some features are so privacy-sensitive that their inclusion in the handshake is a non-starter. One idea that has been floated is to replace the key exchange at the heart of TLS with password-authenticated key-exchange (PAKE). This would allow password-based authentication to be used alongside (or in lieu of) certificate-based authentication, making TLS more robust and suitable for a wider range of applications. The privacy issue here is analogous to SNI: servers typically associate a unique identifier to each client (e.g., a username or email address) that is used to retrieve the client's credentials; and the client must, somehow, convey this identity to the server during the course of the handshake. If sent in the clear, then this personally identifiable information would be easily accessible to any network observer.
A necessary ingredient for addressing all of these privacy leaks is handshake encryption, i.e., the encryption of handshake messages in addition to application data. Sounds simple enough, but this solution presents another problem: how do the client and server pick an encryption key if, after all, the handshake is itself a means of exchanging a key? Some parameters must be sent in the clear, of course, so the goal of ECH is to encrypt all handshake parameters except those that are essential to completing the key exchange.
In order to understand ECH and the design decisions underpinning it, it helps to understand a little bit about the history of handshake encryption in TLS.
Handshake encryption in TLS
TLS had no handshake encryption at all prior to the latest version, TLS 1.3. In the wake of the Snowden revelations in 2013, the IETF community began to consider ways of countering the threat that mass surveillance posed to the open Internet. When the process of standardizing TLS 1.3 began in 2014, one of its design goals was to encrypt as much of the handshake as possible. Unfortunately, the final standard falls short of full handshake encryption, and several parameters, including SNI, are still sent in the clear. Let's take a closer look to see why.
The TLS 1.3 protocol flow is illustrated in Figure 1. Handshake encryption begins as soon as the client and server compute a fresh shared secret. To do this, the client sends a key share in its ClientHello message, and the server responds in its ServerHello with its own key share. Having exchanged these shares, the client and server can derive a shared secret. Each subsequent handshake message is encrypted using the handshake traffic key derived from the shared secret. Application data is encrypted using a different key, called the application traffic key, which is also derived from the shared secret. These derived keys have different security properties: to emphasize this, they are illustrated with different colors.
The first handshake message that is encrypted is the server's EncryptedExtensions. The purpose of this message is to protect the server's sensitive handshake parameters, including the server's ALPN extension, which contains the application selected from the client's ALPN list. Key-exchange parameters are sent unencrypted in the ClientHello and ServerHello.
All of the client's handshake parameters, sensitive or not, are sent in the ClientHello. Looking at Figure 1, you might be able to think of ways of reworking the handshake so that some of them can be encrypted, perhaps at the cost of additional latency (i.e., more round trips over the network). However, extensions like SNI create a kind of "chicken-and-egg" problem.
The client doesn't encrypt anything until it has verified the server's identity (this is the job of the Certificate and CertificateVerify messages) and the server has confirmed that it knows the shared secret (the job of the Finished message). These measures ensure the key exchange is authenticated, thereby preventing monster-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks in which the adversary impersonates the server to the client in a way that allows it to decrypt messages sent by the client. Because SNI is needed by the server to select the certificate, it needs to be transmitted before the key exchange is authenticated.
In general, ensuring confidentiality of handshake parameters used for authentication is only possible if the client and server already share an encryption key. But where might this key come from?
Full handshake encryption in the early days of TLS 1.3. Interestingly, full handshake encryption was once proposed as a core feature of TLS 1.3. In early versions of the protocol (draft-10, circa 2015), the server would offer the client a long-lived public key during the handshake, which the client would use for encryption in subsequent handshakes. (This design came from a protocol called OPTLS, which in turn was borrowed from the original QUIC proposal.) Called "0-RTT", the primary purpose of this mode was to allow the client to begin sending application data prior to completing a handshake. In addition, it would have allowed the client to encrypt its first flight of handshake messages following the ClientHello, including its own EncryptedExtensions, which might have been used to protect the client's sensitive handshake parameters.
Ultimately this feature was not included in the final standard (RFC 8446, published in 2018), mainly because its usefulness was outweighed by its added complexity. In particular, it does nothing to protect the initial handshake in which the client learns the server's public key. Parameters that are required for server authentication of the initial handshake, like SNI, would still be transmitted in the clear.
Nevertheless, this scheme is notable as the forerunner of other handshake encryption mechanisms, like ECH, that use public key encryption to protect sensitive ClientHello parameters. The main problem these mechanisms must solve is key distribution.
Before ECH there was (and is!) ESNI
The immediate predecessor of ECH was the Encrypted SNI (ESNI) extension. As its name implies, the goal of ESNI was to provide confidentiality of the SNI. To do so, the client would encrypt its SNI extension under the server's public key and send the ciphertext to the server. The server would attempt to decrypt the ciphertext using the secret key corresponding to its public key. If decryption were to succeed, then the server would proceed with the connection using the decrypted SNI. Otherwise, it would simply abort the handshake. The high-level flow of this simple protocol is illustrated in Figure 2.
For key distribution, ESNI relied on another critical protocol: Domain Name Service (DNS). In order to use ESNI to connect to a website, the client would piggy-back on its standard A/AAAA queries a request for a TXT record with the ESNI public key. For example, to get the key for crypto.dance, the client would request the TXT record of _esni.crypto.dance:
$ dig _esni.crypto.dance TXT +short "/wGuNThxACQAHQAgXzyda0XSJRQWzDG7lk/r01r1ZQy+MdNxKg/mAqSnt0EAAhMBAQQAAAAAX67XsAAAAABftsCwAAA="
The base64-encoded blob contains an ESNI public key and related parameters such as the encryption algorithm.
But what's the point of encrypting SNI if we're just going to leak the server name to network observers via a plaintext DNS query? Deploying ESNI this way became feasible with the introduction of DNS-over-HTTPS (DoH), which enables encryption of DNS queries to resolvers that provide the DoH service (220.127.116.11 is an example of such a service.). Another crucial feature of DoH is that it provides an authenticated channel for transmitting the ESNI public key from the DoH server to the client. This prevents cache-poisoning attacks that originate from the client's local network: in the absence of DoH, a local attacker could prevent the client from offering the ESNI extension by returning an empty TXT record, or coerce the client into using ESNI with a key it controls.
While ESNI took a significant step forward, it falls short of our goal of achieving full handshake encryption. Apart from being incomplete — it only protects SNI — it is vulnerable to a handful of sophisticated attacks, which, while hard to pull off, point to theoretical weaknesses in the protocol's design that need to be addressed.
ESNI was deployed by Cloudflare and enabled by Firefox, on an opt-in basis, in 2018, an experience that laid bare some of the challenges with relying on DNS for key distribution. Cloudflare rotates its ESNI key every hour in order to minimize the collateral damage in case a key ever gets compromised. DNS artifacts are sometimes cached for much longer, the result of which is that there is a decent chance of a client having a stale public key. While Cloudflare's ESNI service tolerates this to a degree, every key must eventually expire. The question that the ESNI protocol left open is how the client should proceed if decryption fails and it can't access the current public key, via DNS or otherwise.
Another problem with relying on DNS for key distribution is that several endpoints might be authoritative for the same origin server, but have different capabilities. For example, a request for the A record of "example.com" might return one of two different IP addresses, each operated by a different CDN. The TXT record for "_esni.example.com" would contain the public key for one of these CDNs, but certainly not both. The DNS protocol does not provide a way of atomically tying together resource records that correspond to the same endpoint. In particular, it's possible for a client to inadvertently offer the ESNI extension to an endpoint that doesn't support it, causing the handshake to fail. Fixing this problem requires changes to the DNS protocol. (More on this below.)
The future of ESNI. In the next section, we'll describe the ECH specification and how it addresses the shortcomings of ESNI. Despite its limitations, however, the practical privacy benefit that ESNI provides is significant. Cloudflare intends to continue its support for ESNI until ECH is production-ready.
The ins and outs of ECH
The goal of ECH is to encrypt the entire ClientHello, thereby closing the gap left in TLS 1.3 and ESNI by protecting all privacy-sensitive handshake-parameters. Similar to ESNI, the protocol uses a public key, distributed via DNS and obtained using DoH, for encryption during the client's first flight. But ECH has improvements to key distribution that make the protocol more robust to DNS cache inconsistencies. Whereas the ESNI server aborts the connection if decryption fails, the ECH server attempts to complete the handshake and supply the client with a public key it can use to retry the connection.
But how can the server complete the handshake if it's unable to decrypt the ClientHello? As illustrated in Figure 3, the ECH protocol actually involves two ClientHello messages: the ClientHelloOuter, which is sent in the clear, as usual; and the ClientHelloInner, which is encrypted and sent as an extension of the ClientHelloOuter. The server completes the handshake with just one of these ClientHellos: if decryption succeeds, then it proceeds with the ClientHelloInner; otherwise, it proceeds with the ClientHelloOuter.
The ClientHelloInner is composed of the handshake parameters the client wants to use for the connection. This includes sensitive values, like the SNI of the origin server it wants to reach (called the backend server in ECH parlance), the ALPN list, and so on. The ClientHelloOuter, while also a fully-fledged ClientHello message, is not used for the intended connection. Instead, the handshake is completed by the ECH service provider itself (called the client-facing server), signaling to the client that its intended destination couldn't be reached due to decryption failure. In this case, the service provider also sends along the correct ECH public key with which the client can retry handshake, thereby "correcting" the client's configuration. (This mechanism is similar to how the server distributed its public key for 0-RTT mode in the early days of TLS 1.3.)
At a minimum, both ClientHellos must contain the handshake parameters that are required for a server-authenticated key-exchange. In particular, while the ClientHelloInner contains the real SNI, the ClientHelloOuter also contains an SNI value, which the client expects to verify in case of ECH decryption failure (i.e., the client-facing server). If the connection is established using the ClientHelloOuter, then the client is expected to immediately abort the connection and retry the handshake with the public key provided by the server. It's not necessary that the client specify an ALPN list in the ClientHelloOuter, nor any other extension used to guide post-handshake behavior. All of these parameters are encapsulated by the encrypted ClientHelloInner.
This design resolves — quite elegantly, I think — most of the challenges for securely deploying handshake encryption encountered by earlier mechanisms. Importantly, the design of ECH was not conceived in a vacuum. The protocol reflects the diverse perspectives of the IETF community, and its development dovetails with other IETF standards that are crucial to the success of ECH.
The first is an important new DNS feature known as the HTTPS resource record type. At a high level, this record type is intended to allow multiple HTTPS endpoints that are authoritative for the same domain name to advertise different capabilities for TLS. This makes it possible to rely on DNS for key distribution, resolving one of the deployment challenges uncovered by the initial ESNI deployment. For a deep dive into this new record type and what it means for the Internet more broadly, check out Alessandro Ghedini's recent blog post on the subject.
The second is the CFRG's Hybrid Public Key Encryption (HPKE) standard, which specifies an extensible framework for building public key encryption schemes suitable for a wide variety of applications. In particular, ECH delegates all of the details of its handshake encryption mechanism to HPKE, resulting in a much simpler and easier-to-analyze specification. (Incidentally, HPKE is also one of the main ingredients of Oblivious DNS-over-HTTPS.)
The road ahead
The current ECH specification is the culmination of a multi-year collaboration. At this point, the overall design of the protocol is fairly stable. In fact, the next draft of the specification will be the first to be targeted for interop testing among implementations. Still, there remain a number of details that need to be sorted out. Let's end this post with a brief overview of the road ahead.
Resistance to traffic analysis
Ultimately, the goal of ECH is to ensure that TLS connections made to different origin servers behind the same ECH service provider are indistinguishable from one another. In other words, when you connect to an origin behind, say, Cloudflare, no one on the network between you and Cloudflare should be able to discern which origin you reached, or which privacy-sensitive handshake-parameters you and the origin negotiated. Apart from an immediate privacy boost, this property, if achieved, paves the way for the deployment of new features for TLS without compromising privacy.
Encrypting the ClientHello is an important step towards achieving this goal, but we need to do a bit more. An important attack vector we haven't discussed yet is traffic analysis. This refers to the collection and analysis of properties of the communication channel that betray part of the ciphertext's contents, but without cracking the underlying encryption scheme. For example, the length of the encrypted ClientHello might leak enough information about the SNI for the adversary to make an educated guess as to its value (this risk is especially high for domain names that are either particularly short or particularly long). It is therefore crucial that the length of each ciphertext is independent of the values of privacy-sensitive parameters. The current ECH specification provides some mitigations, but their coverage is incomplete. Thus, improving ECH's resistance to traffic analysis is an important direction for future work.
The spectre of ossification
An important open question for ECH is the impact it will have on network operations.
One of the lessons learned from the deployment of TLS 1.3 is that upgrading a core Internet protocol can trigger unexpected network behavior. Cloudflare was one of the first major TLS operators to deploy TLS 1.3 at scale; when browsers like Firefox and Chrome began to enable it on an experimental basis, they observed a significantly higher rate of connection failures compared to TLS 1.2. The root cause of these failures was network ossification, i.e., the tendency of middleboxes — network appliances between clients and servers that monitor and sometimes intercept traffic — to write software that expects traffic to look and behave a certain way. Changing the protocol before middleboxes had the chance to update their software led to middleboxes trying to parse packets they didn't recognize, triggering software bugs that, in some instances, caused connections to be dropped completely.
This problem was so widespread that, instead of waiting for network operators to update their software, the design of TLS 1.3 was altered in order to mitigate the impact of network ossification. The ingenious solution was to make TLS 1.3 "look like" another protocol that middleboxes are known to tolerate. Specifically, the wire format and even the contents of handshake messages were made to resemble TLS 1.2. These two protocols aren't identical, of course — a curious network observer can still distinguish between them — but they look and behave similar enough to ensure that the majority of existing middleboxes don't treat them differently. Empirically, it was found that this strategy reduced the connection failure rate enough to make deployment of TLS 1.3 viable.
Once again, ECH represents a significant upgrade for TLS for which the spectre of network ossification looms large. The ClientHello contains parameters, like SNI, that have existed in the handshake for a long time, and we don't yet know what the impact will be of encrypting them. In anticipation of the deployment issues ossification might cause, the ECH protocol has been designed to look as much like a standard TLS 1.3 handshake as possible. The most notable difference is the ECH extension itself: if middleboxes ignore it — as they should, if they are compliant with the TLS 1.3 standard — then the rest of the handshake will look and behave very much as usual.
It remains to be seen whether this strategy will be enough to ensure the wide-scale deployment of ECH. If so, it is notable that this new feature will help to mitigate the impact of future TLS upgrades on network operations. Encrypting the full handshake reduces the risk of ossification since it means that there are less visible protocol features for software to ossify on. We believe this will be good for the health of the Internet overall.
The old TLS handshake is (unintentionally) leaky. Operational requirements of both the client and server have led to privacy-sensitive parameters, like SNI, being negotiated completely in the clear and available to network observers. The ECH extension aims to close this gap by enabling encryption of the full handshake. This represents a significant upgrade to TLS, one that will help preserve end-user privacy as the protocol continues to evolve.
The ECH standard is a work-in-progress. As this work continues, Cloudflare is committed to doing its part to ensure this important upgrade for TLS reaches Internet-scale deployment.