Introduction to I2P Network


Invisible Internet Project (I2P), Tor and Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) are well-known anonymity networks. They are all designed in different ways and for specific uses, although most people use them with the intent of privately browsing the Internet. These network functions have very similar characteristics, but also have important differentiators in how they work to anonymize and secure users' Internet traffic.

In this report we'll examine what the I2P network is, the paradigms of how it works, its security infrastructure and its potential or known use-cases in the blockchain domain.


What is I2P?

I2P (known as the Invisible Internet Project - founded in 2003) is a low-latency network layer that runs on a distributed network of computers across the globe. It is primarily built into applications such as email, Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and file sharing [6]. It works by automatically making each client in the network a node, through which data and traffic are routed. These nodes are responsible for providing encrypted, one-way connections to and from other computers within the network.

How does I2P Work?

I2P is an enclosed network that runs within the Internet infrastructure (referred to as the clearnet in this paradigm). Unlike VPNs and Tor, which are inherently "outproxy" networks designed for anonymous and private communication with the Internet, I2P is designed as a peer-to-peer network. This means it has very little to no communication with the Internet. This also means that each node in I2P is not identified with an Internet Protocol (IP) address, but with a cryptographic identifier ([1], [2]). A node in the I2P network can either be a server that hosts a darknet service (similar to a website on the Internet), or a client who accesses the servers and services hosted by other nodes [6]. Tor, on the other hand, works by using a group of volunteer-operated relay servers/nodes that allow people to privately and securely access the Internet. This means people can choose to volunteer as a relay node in the network and hence donate bandwidth [13]. Compared to Tor, each client/server in I2P is automatically a relay node. Whether data is routed through a specific node is normally bandwidth dependent.

Since there is no Internet in I2P, the network is made up of its own anonymous and hidden sites, called eepsites. These exist only within the network and are only accessible to people using I2P. Services such as I2PTunnel, which use a standard web server, can be used to create such sites.


Routing Infrastructure and Anonymity

I2P works by installing an I2P routing service within a client's device. This router creates temporary, encrypted, one-way connections with I2P routers on other devices. Connections are referred to as one way because they are made up of an Outbound Tunnel and an Inbound Tunnel. During any communication, data leaves the client's devices via the outbound tunnels and is received on other devices through their inbound tunnels. This means that messages/data does not travel in two directions within the same tunnel. Therefore, a single round-trip request message and its response between two parties needs four tunnels [4], as shown in Figure 1. Messages sent from one device do not travel directly to the inbound tunnel of the destination device. Instead, the outbound router queries a distributed network database for the corresponding address of the inbound router. This database is comprised of a custom Kademlia-style Distributed Hash Table (DHT) that contains the router information and destination information. For each application/client, the I2P router keeps a pool of tunnel pairs. Exploratory tunnels for interactions with the network database are shared among all users of a router. If a tunnel in the pool is about to expire or if the tunnel is no longer usable, the router creates a new tunnel and adds it to the pool. It is important to recall later that tunnels periodically expire, every 10 minutes, and hence, need to be refreshed frequently. This is one of I2P's security measures that are performed to prevent long-lived tunnels from becoming a threat to anonymity [3].

Figure 1: Network Topology [6]

Distributed Network Database

The Network Database (NetDB) is implemented as a DHT and is propagated via nodes known as floodfill routers using the Kademlia protocol. The NetDB is one of the characteristics that make I2P decentralized. To start participating in the network, a router installs a part of the NetDB. Obtaining the partial NetDB is called bootstrapping and happens by ’reseeding’ the router. By default, a router will reseed the first time by querying some bootstrapped domain names. When a router successfully establishes a connection to one of these domains, a Transport Layer Security (TLS) connection is set up through which the router downloads a signed partial copy of the NetDB. Once the router can reach at least one other participant in the network, the router will query for other parts of the NetDB it does not have itself [12].

The NetDB stores two types of data:

  1. RouterInfo. When a message is leaving one router, it needs to know some key pieces of data (known as RouterInfo) about the other router. The destination RouterInfo is stored in the NetDB with the router's identity as the key. To request a resource (or RouterInfo), a client requests the desired key from the node considered to be closest to the key. If the piece of data is located at the node, it is returned to the client. Otherwise, the node uses its local knowledge of participating nodes and returns the node it considers to be nearest to the key [3]. The RouterInfo in the NetDB is made up of ([4], [6]):

    • The router's identity - an encryption key, a signing key and a certificate.
    • The contact addresses at which it can be reached - protocol, IP and port.
    • When this was created or published.
    • Options - a set of arbitrary text options, e.g. bandwidth of router.
    • The signature of the above, generated by the identity's signing key.
  2. LeaseSets. The LeaseSet specifies a tunnel entry point to reach an endpoint. This specifies the routers that can directly contact the desired destination. It contains the following data:

    • Tunnel gateway router - given by specifying its identity.
    • Tunnel ID - tunnel used to send messages.
    • Tunnel expiration - when the tunnel will expire.
    • Destination itself - similar to router identity.
    • Signature - used to verify the LeaseSet.

Floodfill Routers

Special routers, referred to as floodfill routers, are responsible for storing the NetDB. Participation in the floodfill pool can be automatic or manual. Automatic participation occurs whenever the number of floodfill routers drops below a certain threshold, which is currently 6% of all nodes in the network ([6], [7]). When this happens, a node is selected to participate as a floodfill router based on criteria such as uptime and bandwidth. It should be noted that approximately 95% of floodfill routers are automatic [8]. The NetDB is stored in a DHT format within the floodfill routers. A resource is requested from the floodfill router considered to be closest to that key. To have a higher success rate on a lookup, the client is able to iteratively look up the key. This means that the lookup continues with the next-closest peer should the initial lookup request fail.

Garlic Routing

Garlic routing is a way of building paths/tunnels through which messages/data in the I2P network travels. When a message leaves the application/client, it is encrypted to the recipient's public key. The encrypted message is then encrypted with instructions specifying the next hop. The message travels in this way through each hop until it reaches the recipient. During the transportation of the message, it is bundled with other messages. This means that any message travelling in the network could contain a number of other messages bundled with it. In essence, garlic routing does two things:

  • provides layered encryption; and
  • bundles multiple messages together.

Figure 2 illustrates the end-to-end message bundling:

Figure 2: Garlic Routing

Threat Model, Security and Vulnerability Attacks

The I2P project has no explicit threat model specified, but rather talks about common attacks and existing defenses. Overall, the design of I2P is motivated by threats similar to those addressed by Tor: The attacker can observe traffic locally, but not all traffic flowing through the network; and the integrity of all cryptographic primitives is assumed. Furthermore, an attacker is only allowed to control a limited number of peers in the network (the website talks about not more than 20% of nodes participating in the NetDB and a similar percentage of the total number of nodes controlled by the malicious entity). In this section, we'll look at different threat models affecting the network [3].

Sybil Attacks

The Sybil attack, illustrated in Figure 3, is a well-known anonymity system attack in which the malicious user creates multiple identities in an effort to increase control over the network. Running this over the I2P network is rather difficult. This is because participants/clients in the network evaluate the performance of peers when selecting peers to interact with, instead of using a random sample. Because running multiple identities on the same host affects the performance of each of those instances, the number of additional identities running in parallel is effectively limited by the need to provide each of them with enough resources to be considered as peers. This means that the malicious user will substantial resources to create multiple identities.

Figure 3: Sybil Attack [5]

Eclipse Attacks

In eclipse attacks, a set of malicious and colluding nodes arranges that a good node can only communicate with malicious nodes. The union of malicious nodes therefore fools the good node into writing its addresses into neighbouring lists of good nodes. In a Sybil attack, a single malicious node possesses a large number of identities in the network in order to control some part of the network. If an attacker wants to continue a Sybil attack into an eclipse attack, the attacker will try to place malicious nodes in the strategic routing path in such a way that all traffic will pass through the attacker's node [8].

Brute Force Attacks

Brute force attacks on the I2P network can be mounted by actively watching the network's messages as they pass between all of the nodes and attempting to correlate messages and their routes. Since all peers in the network are frequently sending messages, this attack is trivial. The attacker can send out large amounts of data (more than 2GB), observe all the nodes and narrow down those that routed the message. Transmission of a large chunk of data is necessary because inter-router communication is encrypted and streamed, i.e. 1,024 byte data is indistinguishable from 2,048 byte data. Mounting this attack is, however, very difficult and one would need to be an Internet Service Provider (ISP) or government entity in order to observe a large chunk of the network.

Intersection Attacks

Intersection attacks involve observing the network and node churns over time, and intersecting the peers that are online when a message is transferred through the network, in order to narrow down specific targets. It is theoretically possible to mount this attack if the network is small, but impractical with a larger network.

Denial of Service Attacks

Denial of service attacks include the following:

Greedy User Attack

A greedy user attack occurs when a user is consuming significantly more resources than they are willing to contribute. I2P has strong defences against these attacks, as users within the network are routers by default and hence contribute to the network by design.

Starvation Attack

A user/node may try to launch a starvation attack by creating a number of bad nodes that do not provide any resources or services to the network, causing existing peers to search through a larger network database, or request more tunnels than should be necessary. An attempt to find useful nodes can be difficult, as there are no differences between them and failing or loaded nodes. However, I2P, by design, maintains a profile of all peers and attempts to identify and ignore poorly performing nodes, making this attack difficult.

Flooding Attack

In a flooding attack, the malicious user sends a large number of messages to the target's inbound tunnels or to the network at large. The targeted user can, however, detect this by the contents of the message and because the tunnel's tests will fail. The user can hence identify the unresponsive tunnels, ignore them and build new ones. They can also choose to throttle the number of messages a tunnel can receive. Although I2P has no defences against a network flooding attack, it is incredibly difficult to flood the network.

How Tor Works and Comparison with I2P

As previously mentioned, Tor works through volunteer relay nodes. These relay nodes, like I2P's nodes, are responsible for creating hops through which data is routed before reaching its intended destination on the Internet. They work by incrementally building a circuit of encrypted connections through relays on the network. The circuit is extended one hop at a time, and each relay along the way knows only which relay gave it data and which relay it is giving data to. No individual relay ever knows the complete path that a data packet has taken. Also, no request uses the same path. Later requests are given a new circuit, to keep people from linking your earlier actions to new actions. This process is also known as Onion Routing [14], and is illustrated in Figure 4:

Figure 4: How Tor Works [13]

How Onion Routing Works

Onion Routing is essentially a distributed overlay network designed to anonymize Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) based applications such as web browsing, secure shell and instant messaging. Clients choose a path through the network and build a circuit in which each node in the path knows its predecessor and successor, but no other nodes in the circuit. Traffic flows down the circuit in fixed-size cells, which are unwrapped by a symmetric key at each node (similar to the layers of an onion) and relayed downstream [14].

The designated use of relay nodes in the Tor network gives the network the following important characteristics:

  • The stability of the network is proportional to the number of relay nodes in the network. The fewer the number of relay nodes, the less stable the network becomes.
  • The security of the network is also proportional to the number of relay nodes. A network with more active relay nodes is less vulnerable to attacks.
  • Finally, the speed of the network is proportional to the number of relay nodes. The more nodes there are, the faster the network becomes [13].

Types of Tor Relays/Nodes Routing

Tor's relay nodes do not all function in the same way. There are four types of relay nodes: a guard or entry relay node, a middle relay node, an exit relay node and a bridge relay node.

Figure 5: Tor Circuit [14]

Guard or Entry Relay (Non-exit Relay) Nodes

A guard relay node is the first relay node in the Tor circuit. Each client that wants to connect to the Tor network will first connect to a guard relay node. This means that guard relay nodes can see the IP address of the client attempting to connect. It is worth noting that Tor publishes its guard relay nodes and anyone can see them on websites such as the one in [15]. Because it is possible to see the IP address of a client, there have been cases where attackers have filtered out traffic on the network using circuit fingerprinting techniques such as documented in [16].

Middle Relay Nodes

Middle relay nodes cover most parts of the Tor network and act as hops. They consist of relays through which data is passed in encrypted format. No node knows more than its predecessor and descendant. All the available middle relay nodes show themselves to the guard and exit relay nodes so that any may connect to them for transmission. Middle relay nodes can never be exit relay nodes within the network [13].

Exit Relay Nodes

Exit relay nodes act as a bridge between the Tor network and the Internet, and send data to the desired destinations on the Internet. The services to which Tor clients are connecting (website, chat service, email provider, etc.) will see the IP address of the exit relay instead of the real IP addresses of Tor users. Because of this, exit relay node owners are often subject to numerous legal complaints and shutdown threats [13].

Bridge Relay Nodes

The design of the Tor network means that the IP address of Tor relays is public, as previously mentioned, and as shown in [15]. Because of this, Tor can be blocked by governments or ISPs by blacklisting the IP addresses of these public Tor nodes. Tor bridges are nodes in the network that are not listed in the public Tor directory. This makes it harder for ISPs and governments to block them. They are meant for people who want to run Tor from their homes, have a static IP or do not have much bandwidth to donate [13].

Differences between I2P and Tor

Fully peer to peer: self-organizing nodesFully peer to peer: volunteer relay nodes
Queries NetDB to find destination’s inbound tunnel gatewayRelays data to the closest relay
Limited to no exit nodes; internal communication onlyDesigned and optimized for exit traffic, with a large number of exit nodes
Designed primarily for file sharingDesigned for anonymous Internet access
Unidirectional tunnelsRendezvous point
Significantly smaller user baseGenerally bigger user base

Source: ([9], [10], [11]).


In summary, Tor and I2P are two types of networks that anonymize and encrypt data transferred within them. Each network is uniquely designed for a respective function. The I2P network is designed for moving data in a peer-to-peer format, whereas Tor is designed for accessing the Internet privately.

Extensive research exists and continues to find ways to improve the security of these networks in their respective operational designs. This research becomes especially important when control of a network may mean monetary losses, loss of privacy or denial of service.


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