In an online community, you sometimes have to ban certain IP addresses or even entire IP ranges due to abuse. You may hire moderators to help you with this, but you might not trust them enough to show them everybody’s plain IP address.

The question is: Is there a scheme to encrypt or hash IP addresses in a way that preserves prefixes, i.e. such that you can still do range bans, but cannot easily recover the original IP address from the encrypted/hashed address?

For example, let’s say the real (“plain”) IP address is and the encrypted/hashed (“scrambled”) form of that address is Then we want the following properties:

  • If a moderator bans the scrambled range, this results in a ban for the plain range, i.e. -
  • Likewise, a ban on results in a ban for, i.e. -
  • etc.
  • A moderator cannot reconstruct the plain address from the scrambled address (with some exceptions, see below).

I can see some inherent weaknesses with this:

  • If two scrambled addresses share the same prefix, then the moderator knows that the plain addresses must also share the same prefix. In particular, if the scrambled addresses are equal, then the moderator knows that the plain addresses are also equal (but this is actually desirable for this use case).
  • Each moderator knows both their own plain address and their scrambled address. If the moderator’s scrambled address and another user’s scrambled address share a common prefix, then the moderator knows that their plain addresses also share a common prefix of equal length. For example, if the moderator has the plain address and the scrambled address, and some other user has a scrambled address 68.4.x.x, then the moderator knows that that user has a plain address of 172.42.x.x. This way they could deduce that they live in the same area or use the same ISP.
  • But it’s worth noting that this by itself does not give the moderator any new information they could not otherwise have obtained: Even if they did not know anything about the IP address of the other user and could only create bans blindly, they could still create a (short) ban for a user and observe if their own address is in the banned range. If it is in the range, then they know that they share a prefix with the user. By starting with a large range ban and making it progressively smaller, they could even determine exactly how long the common prefix is.

My idea was to use a scheme like the following. For simplicity, I’ll pretend we are dealing with an IPv4 address here and are encrypting octet-by-octet, even though this would restrict range bans to subnet sizes of /8, /16, /24 and /32. But the same principle could be used for bitwise encryption, where we would not have that restriction.

\begin{align} x &: \text{The plain address consisting of four octets}\\ y &: \text{The scrambled address consisting of four octets}\\ k &: \text{A sufficently large fixed global salt (e.g. 128 bits)}\\ H &: \text{A cryptographic hash function}\\ \\ \text{Encryption:} \\ x &= x_1.x_2.x_3.x_4 \\ H_0 &= H(k) \\ H_1 &= H(k \mathbin {||} x_1) \\ H_2 &= H(k \mathbin {||} x_1 \mathbin {||} x_2) \\ H_3 &= H(k \mathbin {||} x_1 \mathbin {||} x_2 \mathbin {||} x_3) \\ y_1 &= H_0 \oplus x_1 \\ y_2 &= H_1 \oplus x_2 \\ y_3 &= H_2 \oplus x_3 \\ y_4 &= H_3 \oplus x_4 \\ y &= y_1.y_2.y_3.y_4 \\ \\ \text{Decryption:} \\ y &= y_1.y_2.y_3.y_4 \\ x_1 &= H_0 \oplus y_1; \quad H_1 = H(k \mathbin {||} x_1) \\ x_2 &= H_1 \oplus y_2; \quad H_2 = H(k \mathbin {||} x_1 \mathbin {||} x_2) \\ x_3 &= H_2 \oplus y_3; \quad H_3 = H(k \mathbin {||} x_1 \mathbin {||} x_2 \mathbin {||} x_3) \\ x_4 &= H_3 \oplus y_4 \\ x &= x_1.x_2.x_3.x_4 \\ \end{align}

Another variant that might (?) be more secure but slightly less convenient in practice would be to omit the xor step and just use $y = H_1.H_2.H_3.H_4$. This way you would get a one-way hash, instead.

Cryptography is not my area of expertise, so I want to know if I’m missing something obvious here, other than the inherent weaknesses I already pointed out. What I do not want is for someone to be able to decrypt all addresses just by knowing one address pair, for example. That would make the endeavor pointless. Another concern is the hash function: I’m thinking of using SHA2, but I’d only use 8 bits of the hash (or 1 bit in the case of bit-wise encryption) and I’m not sure what security implications this has, if any.

After having a second look, I believe I’m always leaking one extra “chunk” of information with this scheme. In particular, if the chunks are octets as in the above example, it would always be possible to recover the first octet, since $x_1 = y_1 \oplus H_0$ and $H_0 = H(k)$ is constant. More generally, we would always leak one more “chunk” than the length of the common prefix. But I believe it would not be possible to decrypt the remainder, as long as the hash function is strong. Here’s my analysis:

Let Eve be a moderator and Alice be a user. Eve can see her own plain address $\tilde{x}$ and her own scrambled address $\tilde{y}$. Eve can also see Alice’s scrambled address $y$, but not her plain address $x$. Eve wants to find out as much information as possible about Alice’s plain address $x$.

\begin{align} \text{Eve’s plain address:} \quad \tilde{x} &= \tilde{x}_1.\tilde{x}_2.\tilde{x}_3.\tilde{x}_4 \\ \text{Eve’s scrambled address:} \quad \tilde{y} &= \tilde{y}_1.\tilde{y}_2.\tilde{y}_3.\tilde{y}_4 \\ \\ \text{Hence, Eve also knows $\tilde{H}_0..\tilde{H}_3$:} \quad \tilde{y}_1 &= \tilde{x}_1 \oplus \tilde{H}_0 \implies \tilde{H}_0 = \tilde{y}_1 \oplus \tilde{x}_1 \\ \tilde{y}_2 &= \tilde{x}_2 \oplus \tilde{H}_1 \implies \tilde{H}_1 = \tilde{y}_2 \oplus \tilde{x}_2 \\ \tilde{y}_3 &= \tilde{x}_3 \oplus \tilde{H}_2 \implies \tilde{H}_2 = \tilde{y}_3 \oplus \tilde{x}_3 \\ \tilde{y}_4 &= \tilde{x}_4 \oplus \tilde{H}_3 \implies \tilde{H}_3 = \tilde{y}_41 \oplus \tilde{x}_4 \\ \\ \text{Alice’s scrambled address:} \quad y &= {y}_1.{y}_2.{y}_3.{y}_4 \\ &= ({x}_1 \oplus {H}_0). ({x}_2 \oplus {H}_1). ({x}_3 \oplus {H}_2). ({x}_4 \oplus {H}_3)\\ \text{where}\quad H_0 &= H(k) \\ H_1 &= H(k \mathbin {||} x_1) \\ H_2 &= H(k \mathbin {||} x_1 \mathbin {||} x_2) \\ H_3 &= H(k \mathbin {||} x_1 \mathbin {||} x_2 \mathbin {||} x_3) \\ \\ \text{Using} \quad H_0 &= H(k) = \tilde{H}_0 \\ \text{Eve can always decrypt $x_1$:} \quad {y}_1 &= {x}_1 \oplus {H}_0 \\ \iff {y}_1 &= {x}_1 \oplus \tilde{H}_0 \\ \iff {x}_1 &= {y}_1 \oplus \tilde{H}_0 \\ \\ \text{Eve now tries to decrypt $x_2$:} \quad \\ {y}_2 &= {x}_2 \oplus {H}_1 \\ \iff {x}_2 &= {y}_2 \oplus {H}_1 \\ \iff {x}_2 &= {y}_2 \oplus \underbrace{H(k \mathbin {||} x_1)} \\ &\text{If $x_1 \neq \tilde{x}_1$, Eve cannot compute this} \\ &\text{because she only knows $x_1$, but not $k$.} \\ &\text{Therefore she cannot decrypt $x_2$.} \\ &\text{If $x_1 = \tilde{x}_1$, then $H_1 = \tilde{H}_1$, which Eve} \\ &\text{knows, so she can decrypt $x_2$.} \end{align} The decryption attempts for $x_3, x_4$ and so on would then follow the same pattern as for $x_2$. In other words, as long as $x_2 \neq \tilde{x}_2$, Eve cannot decrypt $x_3$ and so on. Formally: Eve can decrypt $x_{n+1}$ if and only if $\forall i \in \{1..n\}: x_i = \tilde{x}_i$. At least that is my conclusion.

If the chunks were 1 bit in size, this means we would only leak one additional bit to Eve that she could not have known already (see third point in the list of inherent weaknesses above). I think that is not too bad. Certainly better than having no obfuscation at all.

I appreciate if you read this far. Thoughts? Does this make sense? Is there a better way for doing this?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This seems to be a case of Format Preserving Encryption. See these questions. The question would be more answerable with details on the desired functionality A) must it remain possible to identify using the standard rules that a scrambled address range is a subset of another, e.g. is a subset of; belongs to both? B) is it OK that the number of significant address bits is constrained to some range (e.g. multiples of 4). $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Mar 21 at 12:26
  • $\begingroup$ Regarding A) This would be desirable, since you want to be able to identify “bad neighborhoods”. But it’s more about identifying addresses close to each other rather than identifying subsets. Either way, it’s not a strict requirement. B) I’m not sure I understand what you mean by “signifcant bits”. Do you mean whether it is acceptable to lose some entropy? Or do you mean restricting the granularity of subnet bans? Both would be acceptable imo. But ideally I would want the output space to be a permutation of the input space, so all the scrambling/unscrambling can take place at the frontend. $\endgroup$
    – Isopod
    Mar 21 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ By "number of significant address bits" I mean the integer in [1…32] that's put in decimal following /. This is the number of bits among 32 in the address that matter. If that number can be anything AND we want property A, that severely restricts the possible quality of the encryption. $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Mar 21 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ Ah, I see. Yes, it would be okay to restrict that to multiples of 4 or 8, for example. $\endgroup$
    – Isopod
    Mar 21 at 14:08

1 Answer 1


Here is an ad-hoc Format Preserving Encryption scheme based on a hash (e.g SHA-256) and a secret key string such that:

  1. It remains possible to identify using the standard rules that a scrambled address range is a subset of another, e.g. is a subset of; and belongs to both.
  2. The number $n$ in decimal following / (defaulting to $32$) can be any multiple of $4$ in $[4…32]$.
    note: without restriction on $n$, the encryption would be simpler, but weaker: knowing that e.g is encrypted to e.g., anyone could deduce with certainty that is encrypted to just by applying property 1 for $n=31$, when the system proposed leaves open the fifteen values in other than

The principle is that each of the left $n/4$ group of four bits in the address are encrypted depending on key and group(s) on their left, and groups further on the right are set to $0$.

The encryption of each block of four bits is per a permutation of $2^4=16$ elements, which is selected among the $16!=20922789888000$ such permutations using a Fisher-Yates shuffle. That selection is per hash (of the the key and group(s) of 4 bits on the left), turned into an integer in $[0,16!)$ by modular reduction. This is reduction is made explicitly byte-by-byte for cross-language compatibility. The whole thing is rather basic Format Preserving Encryption, except for the implementation of property 1 by hashing the appropriate data.

Encoding goes:

  • parse the address and $n$ if present (otherwise make it $n=32$)
  • check $n$ is multiple of $4$ in $[4…32]$
  • convert the address to an array of $n/4$ values in $[0…15]$ each encoding four bits of the address, and the other entries up to index $7$ are $0$; e.g. and (AC2A0232 and AC2A02A0 in hex) yield $a=[10,12,2,10,0,3,0,0]$
  • for $i$ from $n/4-1$ down to $0$
    • $k\gets 0$
    • hash the secret key string followed by the first $i$ byte(s) of array $a$
    • for each byte $b$ in the hash (optionally: truncated to say $12$ bytes)
      • $k\gets(256\,k+b)\bmod(16!)$ where $16!=20922789888000$
        Note: $256\,k+b$ remains below $2^{53}$
    • allocate array $p$ with $16$ entries that the next loop will set to a permutation decided per $k$
    • for $j$ from $0$ to $15$
      • $m\gets k\bmod(j+1)$
      • $k\gets\lfloor k/(j+1)\rfloor$
      • $p[j]\gets j$
      • $p[j]\gets p[m]$
      • $p[m]\gets j$
    • $a[i]\gets p[a[i]]$
  • group the eight values in $a$ by in four pairs, convert to four integers in decimal separated by three ., append the / suffix per $n$ unless that's $32$

Decoding is similar except

  • the for loop on $i$ is from $0$ to $n/4-1$
  • the step $a[i]\gets p[a[i]]$ becomes the following (which inverses the permutation)
    • for $j$ from $0$ to $15$
      • if $p[j]=a[i]$
        • $m\gets j$
    • $a[i]\gets m$

I did not attempt to handle other desirable features, like keeping and unchanged, and other special cases. That would be possible, as well as changing the restrictions on $n$ to something arbitrary, including dependent on the address.

Note: the code is not quite constant-time for a variety of reasons, including data cache effects for $p$, and the if in the decoding (but good luck to exploit that IRL). That could be fixed by using a 64-bit variable instead of $p$, and bitwise arithmetic instead of the if.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Very interesting. 1. Could you elaborate a bit more on the permutation, how it works and how it improves security? 2. I think in your example for a, the last 3 should be a 0. 3. Why the loop to compute k? Couldn’t you just do k = hash mod 16!? 4. In the decoding step you’re assigning to p[j] twice, that doesn’t seem right. 5. I translated your pseudo-code into Rust, but I can’t get it to work. For example, and are both mapped to I don’t think that’s correct? Here’s my code: gist.github.com/Isopod/a411298879a144f378979241902f530a $\endgroup$
    – Isopod
    Mar 22 at 10:45
  • $\begingroup$ @Isopod: 1. added an explanatory paragraph, including reference on how the permutation is obtained (my code does not quite match this reference, because I wanted encoding and decoding to be as similar as possible; that doomed it!). 2. You are right, fixed! My intention was a /28, my bad. 3. Yes, at the point with "allocate", $k$ is the result of the hash reduced modulo 16!, basically k = hash mod 16!. I made this computation explicit so that it's portable across languages. 4. That's intentional, and useful when $m=j$. [update] This is now used in encoding. $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Mar 22 at 11:34
  • $\begingroup$ @Isopod: 5. My attempt to build an inverse Fisher-Yates was wrong. I now have moved the decoding code to the encoding, and do the decoding with an extra loop. My first experience with Rust was easy! (I can't help I wonder if factorial(16)) gets evaluated once at compile time, or is cached at runtime, or evaluated many times). $\endgroup$
    – fgrieu
    Mar 22 at 12:27
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I updated the code according to your edits and it seems to work now. Pretty cool! $\endgroup$
    – Isopod
    Mar 22 at 12:42

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