#contact #protocols #report #tracing #devices #bluetooth #numbers


Reference implementation of the TCN protocol for decentralized contact tracing

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0.4.1 Apr 8, 2020
0.4.0 Apr 8, 2020

#928 in Hardware support

MIT license

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TCN Protocol

This is a work-in-progress document. Changes are tracked through PRs and issues.

This document describes Temporary Contact Numbers, a decentralized, privacy-first contact tracing protocol developed by the TCN Coalition. This protocol is built to be extensible, with the goal of providing interoperability between contact tracing applications. The TCN protocol and related efforts are designed with the Contact Tracing Bill of Rights in mind.

No personally-identifiable information is required by the protocol, and although it is compatible with a trusted health authority, it does not require one. Users' devices send short-range broadcasts over Bluetooth to nearby devices. Later, a user who develops symptoms or tests positive can report their status to their contacts with minimal loss of privacy. Users who do not send reports reveal no information. Different applications using the TCN protocol can interoperate, and the protocol can be used with either verified test results or for self-reported symptoms via an extensible report memo field.

PRs and Issues are welcome to be submitted directly to this repo. For questions about the TCN Protocol or collaborating in more detail, contact Henry or Dana.

This repository also contains a reference implementation of the TCN protocol written in Rust. View documentation by running cargo doc --no-deps --open, and run tests by running cargo test.

To coordinate development, the protocol is versioned using Semver. Changes can be found in CHANGELOG.md.

What's on this page:

As it is a work-in-progress, this page also contains rough notes, yet to be merged with the main document.

Ideal functionality and trust assumptions in contact tracing systems

Cryptography builds systems that mediate and rearrange trust, so before beginning discussion of cryptographic approaches to contact tracing, it's worthwhile to delineate categories of trust involved in the problem.

  1. Location Privacy. Is any party trusted with access to location data, and if so, under what circumstances? Because a contact tracing system allows users to report potential exposure to other users, this category can be usefully subdivided into reporter privacy and receiver privacy.

  2. Functional Capacity. Does the system trust that health authorities will be able to carry out their functions, or is it resilient in case they become overwhelmed and are unable to?

  3. Report Integrity. What measures does the system use, if any, to determine the integrity of a report of symptoms or test status?

Contact tracing is used to identify people who may have been exposed to infection and notify them of their exposure, allowing isolation, testing, or treatment as may be appropriate. However, contact tracing poses risks of its own, such as fear of stigma or discrimination based on health status, or the risk that contact tracing systems could be repurposed for surveillance by governments or individuals. This makes location privacy paramount.

However, trust in functional capacity is also problematic. In an ideal world, health authorities would have unlimited resources and perfect effectiveness in deploying them. But in the real world, health authorities have limited resources, are strained under the burden of dealing with the epidemic, or may fail to respond adequately or effectively. Indeed, each of these possibilities has already happened during the current epidemic. While no technological system can properly compensate for institutional failure, a system that is resilient to failure can potentially absorb slack and give people agency to help themselves.

Moreover, a protocol that places additional burdens on health authorities (e.g., requiring them to deploy complex cryptography like MPC or carefully manage cryptographic key material) faces severe adoption barriers compared to one that does not, so reducing trust requirements may allow accelerated deployment.

For these reasons, it seems preferable to design a protocol that does not require participation by any health authority, but is optionally compatible with health authorities that verify report integrity (e.g., by sending reports to a portal that signs them on behalf of the health authority or allowing the authorities to generate URLs that pass an authenticated positive diagnosis result to an app). Leaving the question of report integrity as an application-level concern means that different applications can make different choices, while still remaining interoperable. For instance, CoEpi allows users to self-report symptoms, while CovidWatch trusts a health authority to attest to the integrity of a positive test status.

This analysis lets us describe the structure and ideal functionality of a contact tracing protocol. The protocol's interactions should fit into the following phases:

  • Broadcast: users generate and broadcast Temporary Contact Numbers (TCNs) over Bluetooth to nearby devices.
  • Report: a user uploads a packet of data to a server to send a report to all users they may have encountered in some time interval.
  • Scan: users monitor data published by the server to learn whether they have received any reports.

Ideally, the protocol should have the following properties:

  • Server Privacy: An honest-but-curious server should not learn information about any user's location or contacts.
  • Source Integrity: Users cannot send reports to users they did not come in contact with or on behalf of other users.
  • Broadcast Integrity: Users cannot broadcast TCNs they did not generate.
  • No Passive Tracking: A passive adversary monitoring Bluetooth connections should not be able to learn any information about the location of users who do not send reports.
  • Receiver Privacy: Users who receive reports do not reveal information to anyone.
  • Reporter Privacy: Users who send reports do not reveal information to users they did not come in contact with, and reveal only the time of contact to users they did come in contact with. Note that in practice, the timing alone may still be sufficient for their contact to learn their identity (e.g., if their contact was only around one other person at the time).

Of these properties, broadcast integrity is very difficult to achieve, because it requires authentication at the physical layer to prevent a user from rebroadcasting TCNs they observed from other users. However, the attack it prevents is one where an adversary creates ghostly copies of legitimate users, and this attack requires the adversary to go around with devices, so it does not scale well. In what follows, we do not attempt to achieve broadcast integrity.

A strawman protocol

As a first attempt to formulate a protocol that satisfies these properties, we consider a strawman protocol. All mobile devices running the app periodically generate a random TCN, store the TCN, and broadcast it using Bluetooth. At the same time, the app also listens for and records the TCNs generated by other devices. To send a report, the user (or a health authority acting on their behalf) uploads the TCNs she generated to a server, together with a memo field containing application-specific report data. All users' apps periodically download the list of reported TCNs, then compare it with the list of TCNs they observed and recorded locally. The intersection of these two lists is the set of positive contacts.

Intuitively, this provides server privacy, as the server only observes a list of random numbers, and cannot correlate them with users or locations without colluding with other users. It prevents passive tracking, because all identifiers are randomly generated and therefore unlinkable from each other. It provides receiver privacy, because all users download the same list of reported TCNs and process it locally. And if the list of TCNs is batched appropriately, users who send reports do not leak information beyond the time of contact to users who observed the TCNs.

However, this proposal does not provide source integrity. Because TCNs have no structure, nothing prevents a user from observing the TCNs broadcast by another user and then including them in a report to the server. Notice that this is still a problem even in the setting where a health authority verifies reports, because although they can attest to test results, they have no way to verify the TCNs. It also poses scalability issues, because the report contains a list of every TCN the user broadcast over the reporting period, and all users must download all reports.

The TCN Protocol

To address the scalability issue, we change from purely random TCNs to TCNs deterministically generated from some seed data. This reduces the size of the report, because it can contain only the compact seed data rather than the entire list of TCNs. This change trades scalability for reporter privacy, because TCNs derived from the same report are linkable to each other. However, this linkage is only possible by parties that have observed multiple TCNs from the same report, not by all users. Distinct reports are not linkable, so users can submit multiple partial reports rather than a single report for their entire history. The report rotation frequency adjusts the tradeoff between reporter privacy and scalability.

To address the source integrity issue, we additionally bind the derived TCNs to a secret held by the user, and require that they prove knowledge of that secret when submitting a report. This proof (in the form of a digital signature) can be relayed to other users for public verifiability, or checked only by the server.

Key Derivation.

Report Key Generation. The user-agent creates the report authorization key rak and the report verification key rvk as the signing and verification keys of a signature scheme. Then it computes the initial temporary contact key (TCK) tck_1 as

tck_0 ← H_tck(rak)
tck_1 ← H_cek(rvk || tck_0)

Each report can contain at most 2**16 TCNs. H_tck is a domain-separated hash function with 256 bits of output.

TCK Ratchet. Contact event keys support a ratchet operation:

tck_i ← H_tck(rvk || tck_{i-1}),

where || denotes concatenation. As noted below, it is crucial that the TCK ratchet is synchronized with MAC rotation at the Bluetooth layer to prevent linkability attacks.

TCN Generation. A temporary contact number is derived from a temporary contact key by computing

tcn_i ← H_tcn(le_u16(i) || tck_i),

where H_tcn is a domain-separated hash function with 128 bits of output.

Diagram. The key derivation process is illustrated in the following diagram:

  │   └───┘         │          │          │          │          │
┌───┐       ┌─────┐ │  ┌─────┐ │  ┌─────┐ │          │  ┌─────┐ │
│rak│──────▶│tck_0│─┴─▶│tck_1│─┴─▶│tck_2│─┴─▶  ...  ─┴─▶│tck_n│─┴─▶...
└───┘       └─────┘    └─────┘    └─────┘               └─────┘
                          │          │                     │
                          ▼          ▼                     ▼
                       ┌─────┐    ┌─────┐               ┌─────┐
                       │tcn_1│    │tcn_2│      ...      │tcn_n│
                       └─────┘    └─────┘               └─────┘

Notice that knowledge of rvk and tck_i is sufficent to recover all subsequent tck_j, and hence all subsequent tcn_j.


A user wishing to notify contacts they encountered over the period j1 > 0 to j2 prepares a report as

report ← rvk || tck_{j1-1} || le_u16(j1) || le_u16(j2) || memo

where memo is a variable-length bytestring 2-257 bytes long whose structure is described below. Then they use rak to produce sig, a signature over report, and send report || sig to the server.

Report Check. Anyone can verify the source integity of the report by checking sig over report using the included rvk, recompute the TCNs as

tck_j1 ← H_tck(rvk || tck_{j1-1})              # Ratchet
tcn_j1 ← H_tcn(le_u16(j1) || tck_{j1})         # Generate
tck_{j1+1} ← H_tck(rvk || tck_{j1})            # Ratchet
tcn_{j1+1} ← H_tcn(le_u16(j1+1) || tck_{j1+1}) # Generate

and compare the recomputed TCNs with their observations. Note that the TCN derived from the provided tck_{j1-1} is not included in the report, because the recipient cannot verify that it is bound to rvk. The server can optionally strip the trailing 64 byte sig from each report if client verification is not important.

Memo Structure. The memo field provides a compact space for freeform messages. This ensures that the protocol is application-agnostic and extensible. For instance, the memo field could contain a bitflag describing self-reported symptoms, in the case of CoEpi, or a signature verifying test results, in the case of CovidWatch.

The memo field is between 2 and 257 bytes and has the following tag-length-value structure:

type: u8 || len: u8 || data: [u8; len]

The data field contains 0-255 bytes of data whose type is encoded by the type field, which has the following meaning:

  • 0x0: CoEpi symptom report v1;
  • 0x1: CovidWatch test result v1;
  • 0x2-0xfe: reserved for allocations to applications on request;
  • 0xff: reserved (can be used to add more than 256 types later).

Parameter Choices. We implement

  • H_tck using SHA256 with domain separator b"H_TCK";
  • H_tcn using SHA256 with domain separator b"H_TCN";
  • rak and rvk as the signing and verification keys of Ed25519.

These parameter choices result in signed reports of 134-389 bytes or unsigned reports of 70-325 bytes, depending on the length of the memo field.

Test vectors can be generated via

cargo test generate_test_vectors -- --nocapture

TCN sharing with Bluetooth Low Energy

Applications following this protocol use iOS and Android apps' capability to share a 128-bit Temporary Contact Number (TCN) with nearby apps using Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE).

Sharing TCNs using BLE should work:

  • cross-platform between iOS and Android apps.
  • cross-app.
  • without asking the user to access their location.
  • power-efficiently, with the least amount of BLE traffic.
  • between apps while they both are in the background with the devices' screen locked.

With the above requirements, we encountered the following BLE platform limitations:

  • iOS 13.4 (and older) does not support the discoverability between third-party iOS apps in the suspended or background-running state, and with the devices' screens locked. Note: If the user unlocks the screen or launches an app (e.g., Settings.app), which does active Bluetooth scanning, then yes.
  • iOS 13.4 (and older) does not support the broadcasting of small advertisement data of third-party apps, while Android supports up to 31 bytes.

To overcome the above limitations, the protocol uses both broadcast-oriented and connection-oriented BLE modes to share TCNs. The terminology used for BLE devices in these modes are:

  • Broadcaster and observer in broadcast-oriented mode.
  • Peripheral and central in connection-oriented mode.

In both modes, the protocol uses the 0xC019 16-bit UUID for the service identifier.

In broadcast-oriented mode, a broadcaster advertises a 16-byte TCN using the service data field (0x16 GAP) of the advertisement data. The observer reads the TCN from this field.

In connection-oriented mode, the peripheral adds a primary service whose UUID is 0xC019 to the GATT database and advertises it. The service exposes a readable and writeable characteristic whose UUID is D61F4F27-3D6B-4B04-9E46-C9D2EA617F62 for sharing TCNs. After sharing a TCN, the centrals disconnect from the peripherals.

How the Temporary Contact Number (TCN) is Found

Android-Android, iOS-Android: 1 observes 2’s broadcast and reads the value from the advertisement data.

Android-iOS: 2 connects to 1 and writes the value of the characteristic and disconnects.

iOS(F)-iOS(B), iOS(B)-iOS(F): 1 connects to 2 and reads the value of the characteristic and disconnects.

iOS(B)-iOS(B): Nearby Android device acts as a bridge: It adds the TCNs received through the characteristic write requests and will advertise those also, while in range.

F = App in Foreground

B = App in Background

Current open-source implementations from CoEpi + Covid Watch generating TCNs locally and covering the communication for each of the above key flows are being developed in the following repositories:

It is expected that the process to generate the 128-bit TCN will not vary between different platforms, but the process of communicating TCNs between platforms has been reduced to working implementations in the above repositories.

References and Further Reading


Notes (to be merged with main document)

Key rotation and compression factor

One important question is how frequently do we change the [report] key. If it does not change, then uploading the key on a positive test reveals all contacts a user has ever had, even several months ago. On the other extreme, we could change the key every time we generate a CEN, then we are back to the strawman random CEN and the resulting scalability problems. What is an appropriate middle ground?

Rotation considerations

The key rotation interval must balance a trade off between security and scalability. Consider, for example, rotating keys every day. This should result in reasonable amounts of data being uploaded and downloaded. However, it means any user who tested positive would associate all the CENs they broadcast in a given day together by revealing the key that generated them. This has two consequences: 1) other users could “compare notes” and see if they saw CENs generated by the same key and therefore encountered the same person. 2) The user could easily be tracked during that day by anyone who passively listens for CENs and notes their locations.

Discussions around the first concern concluded it was the less problematic of the two attacks. To actively mount the attack would require users to actively find each other, collude, and compare data. And the end result is being able to infer they had contact with the same person. It is worth noting that this may be possible for humans to do on their own in many cases, simply by comparing who they have talked to, etc or looking at what time an encounter happened and remembering where they were and who they were meeting. It is also likely that the CoEpi app will allow users to locally store location history data to assist with identifying where a contact occurred, and therefore how likely it was to have represented a possible exposure. Since identifying such exposures is the whole point of the app, recipients can be expected (by the users reporting symptoms or test results) to receive and use such information for whatever purposes they deem appropriate. Any inappropriate use of such information will need to be avoided by social, not technological, means.

However, the second issue is a major concern. BLE beacon tracking is already used in some settings. Moreover, if contact tracing apps become ubiquitous, enterprise solutions for tracking contacts for businesses and public spaces will emerge rapidly. This will result in CENs being recorded in bulk and likely aggregated in cloud managed services. In this setting then, linking 24 hours of CENs together will be easy and equivalent to simply revealing a user’s location history for that day (if they later report symptoms or a positive test). Worse, due to the relative simplicity of re-identification attacks, it should be fairly simple to link each 24 hour snippet of a user’s location history together to compute a history over a week or more. Substantially shortening the interval reduces this risk. It does not completely eliminate it, but as a primary defense against BLE beacon tracking, re-keying intervals should be as short as feasible.

Note, however, re-keying is much less of a concern if contacts are made based on symptom reports. If users are notified of the contact and their symptoms, and the symptom descriptors are reasonably unique, then with high probability all CENs which have a report containing the same symptoms are from the same user. This is the same information that would be leaked by using a long rekeying interval.

Further considerations

In the setting where CENs are continuously broadcast, we must also choose the rate at which we change from one CEN to another. Again, the longer a CEN lasts for, the greater the risk of tracking. In particular, in many settings it will be easy to infer at the time that one CEN disappears and another appears that they are the same device. This won’t be perfect, but if CENs change infrequently, it need not be perfect to recover a pretty good trace of a user's location history.

Finally, Bluetooth itself exposes a number of tracking opportunities due to the handling of MAC addresses and other identifiers. Unfortunately, the degree to which these are properly randomized varies considerably across devices, with many devices not implementing strong privacy protections. See this paper for an overview on privacy issues. In all cases, the duration for which a CEN lasts should be a multiple of the frequency with which MAC address and other identifiers in the BLE protocol get randomized. For example, if the MAC address changes every minute, then the CEN can change every minute, every 10 seconds, or every second. But it cannot change every two minutes or change e.g. every 7 seconds. In the latter two cases, then when the MAC address changed, the CEN would not. Anyone observing (MAC A, CEN 1), then (MAC B, CEN 1), then (MAC B, CEN 2) can conclude they are all the same device because all identifiers don’t change at the same time. This would entirely compromise Bluetooth privacy.


Linkage Attack

A linkage attack is the matching of anonymized records with non-anonymized records in a different dataset. An example for our usecase would be: A user is only close to one other person in a given timeframe. If they get notified of a revealed contact, they know who it was. Generally: If the timeframe of a contact is revealed, and users do out of band correlation, like taking notes/pictures, they can narrow down the possible real identies of their contacts, which revealed. As long as the users know which CENs are in the intersection, this can not be prevented.

Replay Attack

An attacker collects CENs of others and rebroadcasts them, to impersonate another user during the gossip phase. If not mitigated, they can at most produce as many false positives as they could with an illegitimate reveal (i.e. they are not infected). Since in the above proposal, the validity period of a CEN will be known after a reveal, this attack can only be executed in a short timeframe.

Counting CEN collisions

With 128 Bit CENs, at a world population of 8bn, expected total collision count for all legitimately generated CENs from a two week timeframe (revealed and non-revealed), without sharding, is ~1.7e-13 (see collisions.jl).


~65K SLoC