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GNUnet's CORE Subsystem

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The CORE subsystem in GNUnet is responsible for securing link-layer communications between nodes in the GNUnet overlay network. CORE builds on the TRANSPORT subsystem which provides for the actual, insecure, unreliable link-layer communication (for example, via UDP or WLAN), and then adds fundamental security to the connections:

  • confidentiality with so-called perfect forward secrecy; we use ECDHE powered by Curve25519 for the key exchange and then use symmetric encryption, encrypting with both AES-256 and Twofish
  • authentication is achieved by signing the ephemeral keys using Ed25519, a deterministic variant of ECDSA
  • integrity protection (using SHA-512 to do encrypt-then-MAC)
  • replay protection (using nonces, timestamps, challenge-response, message counters and ephemeral keys)
  • liveness (keep-alive messages, timeout)

Limitations

CORE does not perform routing; using CORE it is only possible to communicate with peers that happen to already be "directly" connected with each other. CORE also does not have an API to allow applications to establish such "direct" connections --- for this, applications can ask TRANSPORT, but TRANSPORT might not be able to establish a "direct" connection. The TOPOLOGY subsystem is responsible for trying to keep a few "direct" connections open at all times. Applications that need to talk to particular peers should use the MESH subsystem, as it can establish arbitrary "indirect" connections.

Because CORE does not perform routing, CORE must only be used directly by applications that either perform their own routing logic (such as anonymous file-sharing) or that do not require routing, for example because they are based on flooding the network. CORE communication is unreliable and delivery is possibly out-of-order. Applications that require reliable communication should use the MESH service. Each application can only queue one message per target peer with the CORE service at any time; messages cannot be larger than approximately 63 kilobytes. If messages are small, CORE may group multiple messages (possibly from different applications) prior to encryption. If permitted by the application (using the cork option), CORE may delay transmissions to facilitate grouping of multiple small messages. If cork is not enabled, CORE will transmit the message as soon as TRANSPORT allows it (TRANSPORT is responsible for limiting bandwidth and congestion control). CORE does not allow flow control; applications are expected to process messages at line-speed. If flow control is needed, applications should use the MESH service.

When is a peer "connected"?

In addition to the security features mentioned above, CORE also provides one additional key feature to applications using it, and that is a limited form of protocol-compatibility checking. CORE distinguishes between TRANSPORT-level connections (which enable communication with other peers) and application-level connections. Applications using the CORE API will (typically) learn about application-level connections from CORE, and not about TRANSPORT-level connections. When a typical application uses CORE, it will specify a set of message types (from gnunet_protocols.h) that it understands. CORE will then notify the application about connections it has with other peers if and only if those applications registered an intersecting set of message types with their CORE service. Thus, it is quite possible that CORE only exposes a subset of the established direct connections to a particular application --- and different applications running above CORE might see different sets of connections at the same time.

A special case are applications that do not register a handler for any message type. CORE assumes that these applications merely want to monitor connections (or "all" messages via other callbacks) and will notify those applications about all connections. This is used, for example, by the gnunet-core command-line tool to display the active connections. Note that it is also possible that the TRANSPORT service has more active connections than the CORE service, as the CORE service first has to perform a key exchange with connecting peers before exchanging information about supported message types and notifying applications about the new connection.