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Ricochet is a peer-to-peer instant messaging system built on anonymity networks. This document defines the communication protocol between two Ricochet instances, as carried out over a Tor hidden service connection.

The protocol is defined in three layers:

The connection layer describes the use of an anonymized TCP-style connection for peer-to-peer communication.

The packet layer separates the connection into a series of packets delivered to channels. This allows multiplexing different operations on the same connection, and packetizes data for channel-level parsing.

The channel layer parses and handles packets according to the channel type and the state of that specific channel.


TODO: This is a brief explanation; we should reference a design/architecture document with more details.

Hidden services

Ricochet uses Tor hidden services as a transport; the reader should be familiar with that architecture and the properties it provides. In particular:

  • The hostname is calculated from a hash of the server's public key, and serves to authenticate the server without relying on a third party
  • Connections are encrypted end-to-end, using the server's key and a DHE handshake to provide forward secrecy
  • Both ends of a connection are anonymous in that neither peer should be able to identify or locate the other, and no relay should be able to connect an identity to the requests it makes
  • Impersonating a server without its private key requires an 80-bit SHA1 collision using a valid RSA key

TODO: We should explore additional cryptography on top of what Tor offers; see issue 72.


Each Ricochet instance publishes a hidden service, which serves as its identity and accepts connections from contacts. When it first comes online, it attempts to connect to the addresses of known contacts. If a connection is made, it is held open; a contact is considered online when there is an open connection. Connections are made on port 9878.

This solution isn't ideal; we'll be exploring better designs on top of hidden services to improve scalability and anonymity properties.

Only one active connection is needed for a contact. Connections are fully bidirectional and all behavior is equivalent regardless of which peer acts as server at the transport level.

Ricochet does not use central servers; connections are made to services published directly by your contacts with no intermediary.

Keeping open connections to unknown peers poses a risk for various attacks, including resource exhaustion. Clients must either authenticate or take other useful action (e.g. delivering a contact request) quickly. The server side of the connection should expire unknown connections.


Channels divide up the connection to allow multiplexing, extensibility, and stateful behavior for packets.

The channel id associates packets with an instance of a channel on the connection, which was previously created by an OpenChannel message.

The channel type defines how packets are parsed and handled. Distinct features have separate channel types; for example, and im.ricochet.file-transfer. By convention, these are in reverse-URI form.

Channels exist within a connection. The channel ID is unique only within that connection, and all channels are closed when the connection is lost.

Channels must be explicitly created with an OpenChannel message. The recipient of that message chooses to accept or reject the channel; for example, it may reject channel types it doesn't support, or won't allow this peer to access.

Channel instances also provide a state for messages. For example, all operations associated with the transfer of one file take place on the same channel, and a second file transfer would use a second channel of the same type.

Both peers may send packets to the same channel. Depending on the channel type, messages may be fully bidirectional or may be a command-response protocol.

At the beginning of the connection, one channel exists automatically: the control channel. As a special case, it always has a channel ID of 0. The control channel provides functionality for creating new channels and maintenance of the underlying connection.


Ricochet needs a variety of levels and types of authentication; known contacts might have a strong proof of identity, while a request from a new person comes with a different proof and an anti-spam "proof of work". Some features could allow unauthenticated use.

To support these scenarios, there is no pre-protocol authentication step. Peers add credentials to their connection by opening and completing various types of authentication channels.

The most common example is im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service: the peer creates a channel of this type and carries out its protocol to prove that it has the private key for a hidden service name. Afterwards, that peer can send a contact request, and the recipient is able to know the source of that request.

Another hypothetical example is example.hashcash: the peer would complete a proof of work as evidence that it doesn't intend to spam the recipient.

These credentials are associated with the connection. For example, you may decide to not allow an channel unless the peer has completed im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service authentication for a known contact's address.

The hidden service transport provides one special case: the server end of the connection is authenticated equivalent to im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service at the beginning of the connection, and must be given equivalent privileges.


Unless otherwise noted, these conventions and definitions are used for the protocol and this document:

  • Peer refers to either Ricochet instance on a connection
  • Recipient refers to the peer which received the message
  • Channels encode data using protocol buffers, with one protobuf message per packet
  • Unless the channel type specifies another mechanism, unknown/unparsable messages result in closing the channel.
  • Protocol behavior which appears malicious or strange may trigger consequences
  • Strings are UTF-8 encoded and should be carefully validated and handled
  • Any reply may be artificially delayed, but order must be preserved


Introduction and version negotiation

Immediately after establishing a connection, the client side must send an introduction message identifying versions of the protocol that it is able to use. The server responds with one of those versions, or an error indicating that no compatible version exists.

This step exists to enable smoother protocol changes in the future, and for better compatibility with old clients.

The client begins the connection by sending the following raw sequence of bytes:

nVersions          // One byte, number of supported protocol versions, must be at least 1
nVersions times:
    version        // One byte, protocol version number

The total size is 3 plus the number of supported versions bytes. The number of supported versions must be at least 1. The server side of the connection must respond with a single byte for the selected version number, or 0xFF if no suitable version is found.

This document describes protocol version 1. Known versions are:

0                  The Ricochet 1.0 protocol
1                  This document

If the negotiation is successful, the connection can be immediately used to begin exchanging messages (the packet layer, below).

Packet layer

The base layer on the connection is a trivial packet structure:

uint16 size        // Big endian, including the header bytes
uint16 channel     // Big endian, channel identifier
bytes  data        // Content of the packet

The connection reads and buffers data until it has a full packet, then looks up the channel identifier within the list of open channels. If the channel is found, data is passed to it for parsing and handling.

The only other functionality implemented at this layer is closing a channel. A channel is closed by sending a packet to that channel with 0 bytes of data. When a packet is received for an unknown channel, the recipient responds by closing that channel.

Note that packets are limited to 65,535 bytes in size, including the 4-byte header. To avoid causing latency on low throughput connections, channels should keep packets as small as possible. If a channel type requires larger packets of data, it must define a way to reassemble them specific to that channel type.

Control channel

The control channel is a special case: it is the only channel open from the beginning of a connection, and it is always assigned the channel identifier 0. If the control channel is closed, the connection must also terminate.

The control channel contains methods used for maintenance of the connection and the creation of other channels. It is a stateless series of protobuf-serialized ControlMessage, with one message encoded per packet. Both peers on the connection may send all messages.

message Packet {
    // Must contain exactly one field
    optional OpenChannel open_channel = 1;
    optional ChannelResult channel_result = 2;
    optional KeepAlive keep_alive = 3;
    optional EnableFeatures enable_features = 4;
    optional FeaturesEnabled features_enabled = 5;

All packets sent to the control channel must encode a Packet, with exactly one field.

message OpenChannel {
    required int32 channel_identifier = 1;      // Arbitrary unique identifier for this channel instance
    required string channel_type = 2;           // String identifying channel type; e.g.

    // It is valid to extend the OpenChannel message to add fields specific
    // to the requested channel_type.
    extensions 100 to max;

Requests to open a channel of the type channel_type, using the identifier channel_identifier for packets. Additional data may be added in extensions to this message.

The recipient of an OpenChannel message checks whether it supports the channel_type, if the channel_identifier is valid and unassigned, and the validity of any extension data. The recipient also checks whether this connection allows channels of this type; for example, if the peer is sufficiently authenticated.

If the request is allowed, channel_identifier will be sent with packets destined for this channel within this connection. It is also used to associate the ChannelResult message with this request. There are several rules that must be followed when choosing or accepting a channel_identifier:

  • The client side of a connection may only open odd-numbered channels
  • The server side may only open even-numbered channels
  • The identifier must fit within the range of uint16
  • The identifier must not be used by an open channel
  • The identifier should increase for every OpenChannel message, wrapping if necessary. Identifiers should not be re-used except after wrapping.

The even/odd restrictions on channel_identifier prevent peers from racing to open a channel with the same id. Channels are tied to a specific connection, so there is no collision between connections.

By convention, channel types are in reverse URI format, e.g.

A ChannelResult message must always be generated in response. If the request is egregiously invalid, the connection may be terminated instead.

message ChannelResult {
    required int32 channel_identifier = 1;      // Matching the value from OpenChannel
    required bool opened = 2;                   // If the channel is now open

    enum CommonError {
        GenericError = 0;
        UnknownTypeError = 1;
        UnauthorizedError = 2;
        BadUsageError = 3;
        FailedError = 4;

    optional CommonError common_error = 3;

    // As with OpenChannel, it is valid to extend this message with fields specific
    // to the channel type.
    extensions 100 to max;

Sent in response to an OpenChannel message, with the same channel_identifier value. If opened is true, the channel is now ready to accept packets tagged with that identifier.

message KeepAlive {
    required bool response_requested = 1;

A simple ping message. If response_requested is true, a KeepAlive message is generated in response with response_requested as false.

message EnableFeatures {
    repeated string feature = 1;
    extensions 100 to max;

message FeaturesEnabled {
    repeated string feature = 1;
    extensions 100 to max;

Simple feature negotiation. Either peer may send the EnableFeatures message with a list of strings representing protocol changes or features. The recipient must respond with FeaturesEnabled containing the subset of those strings it recognizes and has enabled.

No such feature strings are currently defined, and the current implementation should always respond with an empty list.

Chat channel

Channel Detail
Channel type
Purpose Sending text-based instant messages
Direction One-way: Only initiator of the channel sends commands, and recipient sends replies
Singleton Only one chat channel is created by each peer on the connection
Authentication Requires im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service as a known contact

A chat channel allows the initiator (the peer who created the channel) to send messages, and receive acknowledgement for those messages. The opposing peer should also create a chat channel to send its own chat messages. Acknowledgement must be on the same channel as the original message. One peer may not open more than one chat channel on the same connection.

Two chat channels (one per peer) are used to avoid ambiguity on which peer creates a chat channel, or which channel would be used in a race situation.

message Packet {
    optional ChatMessage chat_message = 1;
    optional ChatAcknowledge chat_acknowledge = 2;
message ChatMessage {
    required string message_text = 1;
    optional uint32 message_id = 2;                // Random ID for ack
    optional int64 time_delta = 3;                 // Delta in seconds between now and when message was written

A message_id of zero (or omitted) indicates that the recipient doesn't expect acknowledgement.

If message_id is non-zero, the recipient should acknowledge receiving this message by sending ChatAcknowledge. Unacknowledged messages may be re-sent with the same message_id, and the recipient should drop duplicate messages with an identical non-zero message_id, after sending an acknowledgement.

Sometimes, messages may be delayed or potentially lost across connections over a short period of time. In order to allow messages to be re-sent after a lost connection, clients should try to avoid choosing message ids from a recent connection (with the same peer) at the start of a new connection. For example, that can be done by randomizing the first message id for a channel.

The time_delta field is a delta in seconds between when the message was composed and when it is being transmitted. For messages that are sent immediately, it should be 0 or omitted. If a message was written and couldn't be sent immediately (due to a connection failure, for example), the time_delta should be an approximation of when it was composed. A positive value does not make any sense, as it would indicate a message composed in the future.

message ChatAcknowledge {
    optional uint32 message_id = 1;
    optional bool accepted = 2 [default = true];

Acknowledge receipt of a ChatMessage.

The accepted parameter indicates whether or not the message is to be considered delivered to the client. If it is false, then the message delivery should be considered to have failed.

Contact request channel

Channel Detail
Channel type
Purpose Introduce a new client and ask for user approval to send messages
Direction One-way: Only initiator of the channel sends commands, and recipient sends replies
Singleton One instance created only by the client side of a connection
Authentication Requires im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service

Contact requests are sent to introduce oneself to the recipient and ask for further contact, including being put on the recipient's persistent contact list.

The requesting client must have authenticated using im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service to prove ownership of a hidden service name.

The recipient isn't required to immediately respond to a request. If the request is approved, the recipient may connect to the requesting client, and that is treated as implicitly accepting the request.

extend Control.OpenChannel {
    optional ContactRequest contact_request = 200;

extend Control.ChannelResult {
    optional Response response = 201;

The OpenChannel message on a contact request channel must include the contact_request extension. A successful ChannelResult must include the response extension.

If the response finishes the request, the channel will be closed immediately. Otherwise, the channel remains open to wait for another Response message (e.g. going from Pending to Accepted).

// Sent only as an attachment to OpenChannel
message ContactRequest {
    optional string nickname = 1;
    optional string message_text = 2;

Deliver a contact request, usually with a message and nickname attached. The "identity" of the request is proven through im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service authentication.

The request is sent as an extension on the OpenChannel message.

message Response {
    enum Status {
        Undefined = 0; // Not valid in transmitted messages
        Pending = 1;
        Accepted = 2;
        Rejected = 3;
        Error = 4;

    required Status status = 1;

Indicates the status of a contact request. The Pending status may be followed by another ContactRequestResponse with a final status. All other statuses must be followed by closing the channel, and may also close the connection. Closing the channel or the connection does not imply having a response - for example, the recipient may decide to time out the connection while it is waiting in the Pending state.

The initial Response is sent as an extension to the ChannelResult message when the channel is opened. If that response is final, the channel is closed immediately after. Otherwise, the channel remains open, and the only valid message is another Response.

If a request is Rejected, the requesting client must not send that request again, unless the user has manually cancelled the previous request and made a new one. Recipients should automatically reject excessive or abusive requests.

If an Error occurs, the requesting client may only request again if it believes the error is solved. Recipients should automatically reject requests after repetitive errors.


Channel Detail
Channel type im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service
Purpose Authenticate as the owner of a Tor hidden service
Direction One-way: Only initiator of the channel sends commands, and recipient sends replies
Singleton One instance created only by the client side of a connection
Authentication No prior authentication required

The im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service channel is used to prove ownership of a hidden service name by demonstrating ownership of a matching private key. This is used to authenticate as a known contact, or to prove ownership of a service name before sending a contact request.

As a result of the transport, the server side of a hidden service connection is considered to have automatically completed im.ricochet.auth.hidden-service authentication, and must be allowed equivalent access.

extend OpenChannel {
    optional bytes client_cookie = 7200;      // 16 random bytes

extend ChannelResult {
    optional bytes server_cookie = 7200;      // 16 random bytes

message Packet {
    optional Proof proof = 1;
    optional Result result = 2;

The channel is opened by the peer who wishes to authenticate itself. The OpenChannel message must contain a client_cookie of 16 bytes. A successful ChannelResult message must include the server_cookie field, with a randomly generated value used to prevent replayed authentication.

message Proof {
    optional bytes public_key = 1;      // DER encoded RSA public key
    optional bytes signature = 2;       // RSA signature

The proof is calculated as:

// + represents concatenation, and function is HMAC-SHA256(key, message)
HMAC-SHA256(client_cookie + server_cookie,
    client_hostname       // base32-encoded client address, without .onion
    + recipient_hostname  // base32-encoded server address, without .onion

This proof is signed with the hidden service's private key using PKCS #1 v2.0 (as per OpenSSL RSA_sign) to make signature.

The recipient of this message must:

  • Reject any message with a public_key field too large or not correctly formed to be a DER-encoded 1024-bit RSA public key
  • Reject any message with a signature field of an unexpected size
  • Decode the public_key, and calculate its 'onion' address per rend-spec
  • Build the proof message
  • Verify that signature is a valid signature of the proof by public_key
message Result {
    required bool accepted = 1;
    optional bool is_known_contact = 2;

If authentication is successful as a known contact, whose connection will be allowed to remain open without any further purpose, the is_known_contact flag must be set as true. If this flag is not set, the authenticating client should assume that it is not authorized (except e.g. to send a contact request).

After sending Result, the channel should be closed.