This page was last updated in July 2019 and is accurate for router version 0.9.41.


This document specifies the details of the encrypted tunnel build messages used to create tunnels using a "non-interactive telescoping" method. See the tunnel build document [TUNNEL-IMPL] for an overview of the process, including peer selection and ordering methods.

The tunnel creation is accomplished by a single message passed along the path of peers in the tunnel, rewritten in place, and transmitted back to the tunnel creator. This single tunnel message is made up of a variable number of records (up to 8) - one for each potential peer in the tunnel. Individual records are asymmetrically (ElGamal [CRYPTO-ELG]) encrypted to be read only by a specific peer along the path, while an additional symmetric layer of encryption (AES [CRYPTO-AES]) is added at each hop so as to expose the asymmetrically encrypted record only at the appropriate time.

Number of Records

Not all records must contain valid data. The build message for a 3-hop tunnel, for example, may contain more records to hide the actual length of the tunnel from the participants. There are two build message types. The original Tunnel Build Message ([TBM]) contains 8 records, which is more than enough for any practical tunnel length. The newer Variable Tunnel Build Message ([VTBM]) contains 1 to 8 records. The originator may trade off the size of the message with the desired amount of tunnel length obfuscation.

In the current network, most tunnels are 2 or 3 hops long. The current implementation uses a 5-record VTBM to build tunnels of 4 hops or less, and the 8-record TBM for longer tunnels. The 5-record VTBM (which, when fragmented, fits in three 1KB tunnel messaages) reduces network traffic and increases build sucess rate, because smaller messages are less likely to be dropped.

The reply message must be the same type and length as the build message.

Request Record Specification

Also specified in the I2NP Specification [BRR].

Cleartext of the record, visible only to the hop being asked:

bytes     0-3: tunnel ID to receive messages as, nonzero
bytes    4-35: local router identity hash
bytes   36-39: next tunnel ID, nonzero
bytes   40-71: next router identity hash
bytes  72-103: AES-256 tunnel layer key
bytes 104-135: AES-256 tunnel IV key
bytes 136-167: AES-256 reply key
bytes 168-183: AES-256 reply IV
byte      184: flags
bytes 185-188: request time (in hours since the epoch, rounded down)
bytes 189-192: next message ID
bytes 193-221: uninterpreted / random padding

The next tunnel ID and next router identity hash fields are used to specify the next hop in the tunnel, though for an outbound tunnel endpoint, they specify where the rewritten tunnel creation reply message should be sent. In addition, the next message ID specifies the message ID that the message (or reply) should use.

The tunnel layer key, tunnel IV key, reply key, and reply IV are each random 32-byte values generated by the creator, for use in this build request record only.

The flags field contains the following:

Bit order: 76543210 (bit 7 is MSB)
bit 7: if set, allow messages from anyone
bit 6: if set, allow messages to anyone, and send the reply to the
       specified next hop in a Tunnel Build Reply Message
bits 5-0: Undefined, must set to 0 for compatibility with future options

Bit 7 indicates that the hop will be an inbound gateway (IBGW). Bit 6 indicates that the hop will be an outbound endpoint (OBEP). If neither bit is set, the hop will be an intermediate participant. Both cannot be set at once.

Request Record Creation

Every hop gets a random Tunnel ID, nonzero. The current and next-hop Tunnel IDs are filled in. Every record gets a random tunnel IV key, reply IV, layer key, and reply key.

Request Record Encryption

That cleartext record is ElGamal 2048 encrypted [CRYPTO-ELG] with the hop's public encryption key and formatted into a 528 byte record:

bytes   0-15: First 16 bytes of the SHA-256 of the current hop's router identity
bytes 16-527: ElGamal-2048 encrypted request record

In the 512-byte encrypted record, the ElGamal data contains bytes 1-256 and 258-513 of the 514-byte ElGamal encrypted block [CRYPTO-ELG]. The two padding bytes from the block (the zero bytes at locations 0 and 257) are removed.

Since the cleartext uses the full field, there is no need for additional padding beyond SHA256(cleartext) + cleartext.

Each 528-byte record is then iteratively encrypted (using AES decryption, with the reply key and reply IV for each hop) so that the router identity will only be in cleartext for the hop in question.

Hop Processing and Encryption

When a hop receives a TunnelBuildMessage, it looks through the records contained within it for one starting with their own identity hash (trimmed to 16 bytes). It then decrypts the ElGamal block from that record and retrieves the protected cleartext. At that point, they make sure the tunnel request is not a duplicate by feeding the AES-256 reply key into a Bloom filter. Duplicates or invalid requests are dropped. Records that are not stamped with the current hour, or the previous hour if shortly after the top of the hour, must be dropped. For example, take the hour in the timestamp, convert to a full time, then if it's more than 65 minutes behind or 5 minutes ahead of the current time, it is invalid. The Bloom filter must have a duration of at least one hour (plus a few minutes, to allow for clock skew), so that duplicate records in the current hour that are not rejected by checking the hour timestamp in the record, will be rejected by the filter.

After deciding whether they will agree to participate in the tunnel or not, they replace the record that had contained the request with an encrypted reply block. All other records are AES-256 encrypted [CRYPTO-AES] with the included reply key and IV. Each is AES/CBC encrypted separately with the same reply key and reply IV. The CBC mode is not continued (chained) across records.

Each hop knows only its own response. If it agrees, it will maintain the tunnel until expiration, even if it will not be used, as it cannot know whether all other hops agreed.

Reply Record Specification

After the current hop reads their record, they replace it with a reply record stating whether or not they agree to participate in the tunnel, and if they do not, they classify their reason for rejection. This is simply a 1 byte value, with 0x0 meaning they agree to participate in the tunnel, and higher values meaning higher levels of rejection.

The following rejection codes are defined:


To hide other causes, such as router shutdown, from peers, the current implementation uses TUNNEL_REJECT_BANDWIDTH for almost all rejections.

The reply is encrypted with the AES session key delivered to it in the encrypted block, padded with 495 bytes of random data to reach the full record size. The padding is placed before the status byte:

AES-256-CBC(SHA-256(padding+status) + padding + status, key, IV)

bytes   0-31 : SHA-256 of bytes 32-527
bytes 32-526 : Random padding
byte 527     : Reply value

This is also described in the I2NP spec [BRR].

Tunnel Build Message Preparation

When building a new Tunnel Build Message, all of the Build Request Records must first be built and asymmetrically encrypted using ElGamal [CRYPTO-ELG]. Each record is then premptively decrypted with the reply keys and IVs of the hops earlier in the path, using AES [CRYPTO-AES]. That decryption should be run in reverse order so that the asymmetrically encrypted data will show up in the clear at the right hop after their predecessor encrypts it.

The excess records not needed for individual requests are simply filled with random data by the creator.

Tunnel Build Message Delivery

For outbound tunnels, the delivery is done directly from the tunnel creator to the first hop, packaging up the TunnelBuildMessage as if the creator was just another hop in the tunnel. For inbound tunnels, the delivery is done through an existing outbound tunnel. The outbound tunnel is generally from the same pool as the new tunnel being built. If no outbound tunnel is available in that pool, an outbound exploratory tunnel is used. At startup, when no outbound exploratory tunnel exists yet, a fake 0-hop outbound tunnel is used.

Tunnel Build Message Endpoint Handling

For creation of an outbound tunnel, when the request reaches an outbound endpoint (as determined by the 'allow messages to anyone' flag), the hop is processed as usual, encrypting a reply in place of the record and encrypting all of the other records, but since there is no 'next hop' to forward the TunnelBuildMessage on to, it instead places the encrypted reply records into a TunnelBuildReplyMessage ([TBRM]) or VariableTunnelBuildReplyMessage ([VTBRM]) (the type of message and number of records must match that of the request) and delivers it to the reply tunnel specified within the request record. That reply tunnel forwards the Tunnel Build Reply Message back to the tunnel creator, just as for any other message [TUNNEL-OP]. The tunnel creator then processes it, as described below.

The reply tunnel was selected by the creator as follows: Generally it is an inbound tunnel from the same pool as the new outbound tunnel being built. If no inbound tunnel is available in that pool, an inbound exploratory tunnel is used. At startup, when no inbound exploratory tunnel exists yet, a fake 0-hop inbound tunnel is used.

For creation of an inbound tunnel, when the request reaches the inbound endpoint (also known as the tunnel creator), there is no need to generate an explicit Tunnel Build Reply Message, and the router processes each of the replies, as below.

Tunnel Build Reply Message Processing

To process the reply records, the creator simply has to AES decrypt each record individually, using the reply key and IV of each hop in the tunnel after the peer (in reverse order). This then exposes the reply specifying whether they agree to participate in the tunnel or why they refuse. If they all agree, the tunnel is considered created and may be used immediately, but if anyone refuses, the tunnel is discarded.

The agreements and rejections are noted in each peer's profile [PEER-SELECTION], to be used in future assessments of peer tunnel capacity.

History and Notes

This strategy came about during a discussion on the I2P mailing list between Michael Rogers, Matthew Toseland (toad), and jrandom regarding the predecessor attack. See [TUNBUILD-SUMMARY], [TUNBUILD-REASONING]. It was introduced in release on 2006-02-16, which was the last time a non-backward-compatible change was made in I2P.


  • This design does not prevent two hostile peers within a tunnel from tagging one or more request or reply records to detect that they are within the same tunnel, but doing so can be detected by the tunnel creator when reading the reply, causing the tunnel to be marked as invalid.
  • This design does not include a proof of work on the asymmetrically encrypted section, though the 16 byte identity hash could be cut in half with the latter replaced by a hashcash function of up to 2^64 cost.
  • This design alone does not prevent two hostile peers within a tunnel from using timing information to determine whether they are in the same tunnel. The use of batched and synchronized request delivery could help (batching up requests and sending them off on the (ntp-synchronized) minute). However, doing so lets peers 'tag' the requests by delaying them and detecting the delay later in the tunnel, though perhaps dropping requests not delivered in a small window would work (though doing that would require a high degree of clock synchronization). Alternately, perhaps individual hops could inject a random delay before forwarding on the request?
  • Are there any nonfatal methods of tagging the request?
  • The timestamp with a one-hour resolution is used for replay prevention. The constraint was not enforced until release 0.9.16.

Future Work

  • In the current implementation, the originator leaves one record empty for itself. Thus a message of n records can only build a tunnel of n-1 hops. This appears to be necessary for inbound tunnels (where the next-to-last hop can see the hash prefix for the next hop), but not for outbound tunnels. This is to be researched and verified. If it is possible to use the remaining record without compromising anonymity, we should do so.
  • Further analysis of possible tagging and timing attacks described in the above notes.
  • Use only VTBM; do not select old peers that don't support it.
  • The Build Request Record does not specify a tunnel lifetime or expiration; each hop expires the tunnel after 10 minutes, which is a network-wide hardcoded constant. We could use a bit in the flag field and take 4 (or 8) bytes out of the padding to specify a lifetime or expiration. The requestor would only specify this option if all participants supported it.