Currently the performance of the Tor anonymity network is quite poor. This problem is frequently stated as a reason for people not using anonymizing proxies, so improving performance is a high priority of their developers. There are only about 1 000 Tor nodes and many are on slow Internet connections so in aggregate there is about 1 Gbit/s shared between 100 000 or so users. One way to improve the experience of Tor users is to increase the number of Tor nodes (especially high-bandwidth ones). Some means to achieve this goal are discussed in Challenges in Deploying Low-Latency Anonymity, but here I want to explore what will happen when Tor’s total bandwidth increases.
If Tor’s bandwidth doubled tomorrow, the naïve hypothesis is that users would experience twice the throughput. Unfortunately this is not true, because it assumes that the number of users does not vary with bandwidth available. In fact, as the supply of the Tor network’s bandwidth increases, there will be a corresponding increase in the demand for bandwidth from Tor users. This fact will apply just as well for other networks, but for the purposes of this post, I’ll use Tor as an example. Simple economics shows that performance of Tor is controlled by how the number of users scales with available bandwidth, which can be represented by a demand curve.
I don’t claim this is a new insight; in fact between me starting this draft and now, Andreas Pfitzmann made a very similar observation while answering a question following the presentation of Performance Comparison of Low-Latency Anonymisation Services from a User Perspective at the PET Symposium. He said, as I recall, that the performance of the anonymity network is the slowest tolerable speed for people who care about their privacy. Despite this, I couldn’t find anyone who had written a succinct description anywhere, perhaps because it is too obvious. Equally, I have heard the naïve version stated occasionally, so I think it’s helpful to publish something people can point at. The rest of this post will discuss the consequences of modelling Tor user behaviour in this way, and the limitations of the technique.