Friday, July 17, 2009

I am a Key Signing Iconoclast*

PGP keys are a way to digitally sign and/or encrypt data such as email, source code, documents and the like. They use a public key system whereby I provide you with a key that you can use to verify a "signature", or in combination with another to decrypt the encrypted data.



Here's a key, it doesn't really have anything to do with this essay.



The signature works because you get my key from a trusted source (me) or because other trusted people have used their own key to sign mine. This is called a web of trust. To make a key "trustable" it has to be signed by a person that is trusted. This can be you, if you've received my key in a way that leads you to believe it is really my key, or someone that you explicitly (or implicitly) trust to verify the veracity of the source.

To this end people are very careful about signing keys. They, in general, will only do it in person, with supporting documentation such as a passport or a driver's license, or both! They take it all very seriously to ensure that the web of trust has value. I agree with this motivation whole-heartedly.

On the other hand, I have decided that in spite of the excellent motivation this key signing orthodoxy has damaged the value of the keys, and because it is, at this point, just an orthodoxy (and not a rational process), has excluded an entirely legitimate domain for PGP keys (quite possibility the most legitimate one).


Keys have a name and one or more uid entries. The uids are email addresses. So the identity to which this key refers is the combination of a moniker and an address. The name, according to the orthodoxy, must appear on some sort of identification document with a photograph, preferably more than one of these. Such documents cannot verify the address, though, and may not even be the name used by the key holder in correspondence. So what is going on here?

The pious signer is using a method which has a very stark appearance of rigor in righteous defense of the web of trust. Here the motivation is excellent but the practice is outright silly. In most if not virtually all cases does not verify the address included in the key with any special rigor. It is, after all the pair that matters and the extra emphasis on the legal name of the person serves no good purpose. If, as is the case with most folks, your concern is that signed email, documents, and the like come from the person you expect is the key owner, why be concerned with the legal name at all?

My own key, the one I most care about asserts only "Yaakov". This is my identity. It is much more real than anything the government would have to say about me. Combined with my email address, it is uniquely me. I am consistently "Yaakov". You, reader, know me as Yaakov. My key is saying "I am Yaakov who corresponds from a certain email address". A signer is saying "I affirm that this key is telling the truth." My key claims nothing about any passports or licenses I might hold. It says, "I am the person you know." So, if I sign my email to you, you will know that it is, in fact, from me. What does this have to do with government paperwork? Why nothing of course.

So if you know me, and you would like to sign my key, or if you agree with me, and you would be willing to use an email exchange and/or other peer-to-peer confirmation of my Yaakov identity, email me at the address at the top of the sidebar and we can convince each other that we are each other in some way that has to do with how we actually use these keys. I am happy to be an iconoclast and remind people what signing should mean. There is no singular method for saying "I am convinced that the holder of this key is, in fact, the person I know it to represent." And so far as I am concerned, the current method, in the face of actual use of the keys, is just not very useful.


*iconoclast |īˈkänəˌklast| noun 1. a person who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions. It comes from the Byzantine Empire where some folks (including the odd empreror) felt that "icons", fancy painted panels which figured in the Eastern Orthodox Church's ritual were right out, being biblically prohibited as "graven images". They broke (-clast from the Greek "klan", "to break") the panels to show their disapproval.

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