Internet Architecture Board (IAB)
Request for Comments: 8546
Category: Informational
ISSN: 2070-1721
B. Trammell
M. Kuehlewind
April 2019

The Wire Image of a Network Protocol


This document defines the wire image, an abstraction of the information available to an on-path non-participant in a networking protocol. This abstraction is intended to shed light on the implications that increased encryption has for network functions that use the wire image.

Status of This Memo

This document is not an Internet Standards Track specification; it is published for informational purposes.

This document is a product of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) and represents information that the IAB has deemed valuable to provide for permanent record. It represents the consensus of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB). Documents approved for publication by the IAB are not candidates for any level of Internet Standard; see Section 2 of RFC 7841.

Information about the current status of this document, any errata, and how to provide feedback on it may be obtained at

Copyright Notice

Copyright © 2019 IETF Trust and the persons identified as the document authors. All rights reserved.

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Table of Contents

   1.  Introduction  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   2
   2.  Definition  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   3
   3.  Discussion  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   3
     3.1.  The Extent of the Wire Image  . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   4
     3.2.  Obscuring Timing and Sizing Information . . . . . . . . .   5
     3.3.  Integrity Protection of the Wire Image  . . . . . . . . .   5
   4.  Engineering the Wire Image  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   6
     4.1.  Declaring Protocol Invariants . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   7
     4.2.  Trustworthiness of Engineered Signals . . . . . . . . . .   7
   5.  IANA Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   6.  Security Considerations . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   7.  Informative References  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   8
   IAB Members at the Time of Approval . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   Acknowledgments . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .   9
   Authors' Addresses  . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .  10

1. Introduction

A protocol specification defines a set of behaviors for each participant in the protocol: which lower-layer protocols are used for which services, how messages are formatted and protected, which participant sends which message when, how each participant should respond to each message, and so on.

Implicit in a protocol specification is the information the protocol radiates toward nonparticipant observers of the messages sent among participants, often including participants in lower-layer protocols. Any information that has a clear definition in the protocol's message format(s), or is implied by that definition, and is not cryptographically confidentiality protected can be unambiguously interpreted by those observers. This information comprises the protocol's wire image, which we define and discuss in this document.

The wire image, not the protocol's specification, determines how third parties on the network paths among protocol participants will interact with that protocol.

The increasing deployment of transport-layer security [RFC8446] to protect application-layer headers and payload, as well as the definition and deployment of transport protocols with encrypted control information such as QUIC [QUIC], brings new relevance to the question of how third parties on the network paths will interact with a protocol. QUIC is, in effect, the first IETF-defined transport protocol to take care of the minimization of its own wire image to prevent ossification and improve end-to-end privacy by reducing information radiation.

The flip side of this trend is the impact of a less visible wire image on various functions driven by third-party observation of the wire image. In contrast to ongoing discussions about this tussle, this document treats the wire image as a pure abstraction, with the hope that it can shed some light on these discussions.

2. Definition

The wire image of the set of protocols in use for a given communication is the view of that set of protocols as observed by an entity not participating in the communication. It is the sequence of packets sent by each participant in the communication, including the content of those packets and metadata about the observation itself: the time at which each packet is observed and the vantage point of the observer.

3. Discussion

This definition illustrates some important properties of the wire image.

It is key that the wire image is not limited to merely "the unencrypted bits in the header". In particular, the metadata, such as sequences of interpacket timing and packet sizes, can be used to infer other parameters of the behavior of the protocols in use or to fingerprint protocols and/or specific implementations of those protocols; see Section 3.2.

An important implication of this property is that a protocol that uses confidentiality protection for the headers it needs to operate can be deliberately designed to have a specified wire image that is separate from that machinery; see Section 4. Note that this is a capability unique to encrypted protocols. Parts of a wire image may also be made visible to devices on path, but immutable through end- to-end integrity protection; see Section 3.3.

Portions of the wire image of a protocol stack that are neither confidentiality protected nor integrity protected are writable by devices on the path(s) between the endpoints using the protocols. A protocol with a wire image that is largely writable operating over a path with devices that understand the semantics of the protocol's wire image can modify it in order to induce behaviors at the protocol's participants. TCP is one such protocol in the current Internet.

The term "wire image" can be applied in different scopes: the wire image of a single packet refers to the information derivable from observing that one packet in isolation, and the wire image of a single protocol refers to the information derivable from observing only the headers belonging to that protocol on a sequence of packets in isolation from other protocols in use for a communication. See Section 3.1 for more.

For a given packet observed at a given point in the network, the wire image contains information from the entire stack of protocols in use at that observation point. This implies that the wire image depends on the observer as well: each observer may see a slightly different image of the same communication.

In this document, we assume that only information at the transport layer and above is delivered end-to-end, and we focus on the "Internet" wire image: that portion of the wire image at the network layer and above. While confidentiality and integrity protection may be added at multiple layers in the stack, protection below the network layer does not prevent modification either by the devices terminating those security associations or by devices on different segments of the path.

3.1. The Extent of the Wire Image

While we begin this definition as the properties of a sequence of packets in isolation, this is not how wire images are typically used by passive observers. A passive observer will generally consider the union of all the information in the wire image in all the packets generated by a given conversation.

Similarly, the wire image of a single protocol is rarely seen in isolation. The dynamics of the application and network stacks on each endpoint use multiple protocols for any higher-level task. Most protocols involving user content, for example, are often seen on the wire together with DNS traffic; the information from the wire image from each protocol in use for a given communication can be correlated to infer information about the dynamics of the overlying application.

Information from protocol wire images is also not generally used on its own but is rather additionally correlated with other context information available to the observer, e.g., information about other communications engaged in by each endpoint, information about the implementations of the protocols at each endpoint, information about the network and internetwork topology near those endpoints, and so on. This context can be used together with information from the wire image to reach more detailed inferences about endpoint and end-user behavior.

Note also that the wire image is multidimensional. This implies that the name "image" is not merely metaphorical and that general image recognition techniques may be applicable to extracting patterns and information from it.

3.2. Obscuring Timing and Sizing Information

Cryptography can protect the confidentiality of a protocol's headers to the extent that forwarding devices do not need the confidentiality-protected information for basic forwarding operations. Ciphersuites and other transmission techniques designed to prevent timing analysis can also be applied at the sender to reduce the information content of the metadata portion of the wire image. However, there are limits to these techniques. Packets cannot be made smaller than their information content, be sent faster than processing time requirements at the sender allow, or be transmitted through the network faster than the speed of light. Since these techniques operate at the expense of bandwidth efficiency and latency, they are also limited to the application's tolerance for latency and bandwidth inefficiency.

3.3. Integrity Protection of the Wire Image

Adding end-to-end integrity protection to portions of the wire image makes it impossible for on-path devices to modify them without detection by the endpoints, which can then take action in response to those modifications, making these portions of the wire image effectively immutable. However, they can still be observed by devices on path. This allows the creation of signals intended by the endpoints solely for the consumption of these on-path devices.

Integrity protection can only practically be applied to the sequence of bits in each packet, which implies that a protocol's visible wire image cannot be made completely immutable in a packet-switched network. Interarrival timings, for instance, cannot be easily protected, as the observable delay sequence is modified as packets move through the network and experience different delays on different links. Message sequences are also not practically protectable, because packets may be dropped or reordered at any point in the network as a consequence of the network's operation. Intermediate systems with knowledge of the protocol semantics in the readable portion of the wire image can also purposely delay or drop packets in order to affect the protocol's operation.

4. Engineering the Wire Image

Understanding the nature of a protocol's wire image allows it to be engineered. The general principle at work here, observed through experience with deployability and non-deployability of protocols at the network and transport layers in the Internet, is that all observable parts of a protocol's wire image will eventually be used by devices on path. Consequently, changes or future extensions that affect the observable part of the wire image become difficult or impossible to deploy.

A network function that serves a purpose useful to its deployer will use the information it needs from the wire image and will tend to get that information from the wire image in the simplest way possible.

For example, consider the case of the ubiquitous TCP [RFC793] transport protocol. As described in [RFC8558], several key in-network functions have evolved to take advantage of implicit signals in TCP's wire image, which, as TCP provides neither integrity or confidentiality protection for its headers, is inseparable from its internal operation. Some of these include:

  • Determining return routability and consent: For example, TCP's wire image contains both an implicit indication that the sender of a packet is at least on the path toward its source address (in the acknowledgement number during the handshake), as well as an implicit indication that a receiving device consents to continue communication. These are used by stateful network firewalls.
  • Measuring loss and latency: For example, examining the sequence of TCP's sequence and acknowledgement numbers, as well as the ECN [RFC3168] control bits, allows the inference of congestion, loss, and retransmission along the path. The sequence and acknowledgement numbers together with the timestamp option [RFC7323] allow the measurement of application-experienced latency.

During the design of a protocol, the utility of features like these should be considered. The protocol's wire image can be designed to explicitly expose information to those network functions deemed important by the designers. The wire image should expose as little other information as possible.

However, even when information is explicitly provided to the network, any information that is exposed by the wire image, even information not intended to be consumed by an observer, must be designed carefully, as deployed network functions using that information may render it immutable for future versions of the protocol. For example, information needed to support decryption by the receiving endpoint (cryptographic handshakes, sequence numbers, and so on) may be used by devices along the path for their own purposes.

4.1. Declaring Protocol Invariants

One potential approach to reduce the extent of the wire image that will be used by devices on the path is to define a set of invariants for a protocol during its development. Declaring a protocol's invariants represents a promise made by the protocol's developers that certain bits in the wire image, and behaviors observable in the wire image, will be preserved through the specification of all future versions of the protocol. QUIC's invariants [QUIC-INVARIANTS] are an initial attempt to apply this approach to QUIC.

While static aspects of the wire image (bits with simple semantics at fixed positions in protocol headers) can easily be made invariant, different aspects of the wire image may be more or less appropriate to define as invariants. For a protocol with a version and/or extension negotiation mechanism, the bits in the header and the behaviors tied to those bits, which implement version negotiation, should be made invariant. More fluid aspects of the wire image and behaviors that are not necessary for interoperability are not appropriate as invariants.

Parts of a protocol's wire image not declared invariant but intended to be visible to devices on path should be protected against "accidental invariance": the deployment of on-path devices over time that make simplifying assumptions about the behavior of those parts of the wire image, making new behaviors not meeting those assumptions difficult to deploy. Integrity protection of the wire image may itself help protect against accidental invariance, because read-only wire images invite less meddling than path-writable wire images. The techniques discussed in [USE-IT] may also be useful in further preventing accidental invariance and ossification.

Likewise, parts of a protocol's wire image not declared invariant and not intended to be visible to the path should be encrypted to protect their confidentiality. When confidentiality protection is either not possible or not practical, then, as above, the approaches discussed in [USE-IT] may be useful in ossification prevention.

4.2. Trustworthiness of Engineered Signals

Since signals in the wire image that are engineered to be exposed are separate from the signals that drive an encrypted protocol's mechanisms, the accuracy of these signals intended for consumption by the path may not be verifiable by on-path devices; see [RFC8558].

Indeed, any two endpoints with a secret channel between them (in this case, the encrypted protocol itself) may collude to change the semantics and information content of these signals. This is an unavoidable consequence of the separation of the wire image from the protocol's operation afforded by confidentiality protection of the protocol's headers.

5. IANA Considerations

This document has no IANA actions.

6. Security Considerations

This document explores the information exposed by the wire image that may be relevant to end-to-end communication privacy and security. When designing the wire image of a network protocol, care must be taken to expose only that information to the network deemed necessary in the protocol's design, and careful design is necessary to reduce the risk that information not explicitly included in the wire image is derivable from its observation.

7. Informative References

   [QUIC]     Iyengar, J. and M. Thomson, "QUIC: A UDP-Based Multiplexed
              and Secure Transport", Work in Progress, draft-ietf-quic-
              transport-19, March 2019.


              Thomson, M., "Version-Independent Properties of QUIC",
              Work in Progress, draft-ietf-quic-invariants-04, April
   [RFC793]  Postel, J., "Transmission Control Protocol", STD 7,
              RFC 793, DOI 10.17487/RFC0793, September 1981,
   [RFC3168]  Ramakrishnan, K., Floyd, S., and D. Black, "The Addition
              of Explicit Congestion Notification (ECN) to IP",
              RFC 3168, DOI 10.17487/RFC3168, September 2001,
   [RFC7323]  Borman, D., Braden, B., Jacobson, V., and R.
              Scheffenegger, Ed., "TCP Extensions for High Performance",
              RFC 7323, DOI 10.17487/RFC7323, September 2014,
   [RFC8446]  Rescorla, E., "The Transport Layer Security (TLS) Protocol
              Version 1.3", RFC 8446, DOI 10.17487/RFC8446, August 2018,
   [RFC8558]  Hardie, T., Ed., "Transport Protocol Path Signals",
              RFC 8558, DOI 10.17487/RFC8558, April 2019,
   [USE-IT]   Thomson, M., "Long-term Viability of Protocol Extension
              Mechanisms", Work in Progress, draft-thomson-use-it-or-
              lose-it-03, January 2019.

IAB Members at the Time of Approval

Jari Arkko
Alissa Cooper
Ted Hardie
Christian Huitema
Gabriel Montenegro
Erik Nordmark
Mark Nottingham
Melinda Shore
Robert Sparks
Jeff Tantsura
Martin Thomson
Brian Trammell
Suzanne Woolf


Thanks to Martin Thomson, Stephen Farrell, Thomas Fossati, Ted Hardie, Mark Nottingham, Tommy Pauly, and the membership of the IAB Stack Evolution Program for text, feedback, and discussions that have improved this document.

This work is partially supported by the European Commission under Horizon 2020 grant agreement No. 688421, Measurement and Architecture for a Middleboxed Internet (MAMI), and by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research, and Innovation under contract No. 15.0268. This support does not imply endorsement.

Authors' Addresses

Brian Trammell
ETH Zurich
Gloriastrasse 35
8092 Zurich


Mirja Kuehlewind
ETH Zurich
Gloriastrasse 35
8092 Zurich