The Lords of the Keys

Have you ever wondered who holds the keys to the internet? Maybe members of an elite society, dressed in dark robes meeting in a secret bunker whispering Latin chant as a single golden casket rises slowly from the ground. The murmurs mainly intelligible other than the odd mention of bandwidth, pop-up and speed. Okay, it’s not quite as sci-fi as that, but it is pretty damn close!

There are seven keyholders who meet four times a year and in true science fiction fashion, their keys combine to create a master key. This in turn controls one of the central security measures at the core of the web, but what does this mean? If such a group were infiltrated could these keys be used to turn off the internet and send us back to the dark ages?

The seven are chosen for their geographical locations, all with a long background in internet security. An important part of the process is that no one country can have too many keyholders. So, what is it these carefully selected individuals actually do and who selects them in the first place? They control the Domain Name System (DNS) which works as a directory for all sites on the web. Without this system in place all web users would need the IP address of the site they wanted to visit. To get to you would have to enter, which I think you will agree doesn’t roll off the tongue!

What the keyholders are achieving is making the internet safer. When they meet, they are ensuring that each entry in the DNS is a legitimate website. Without this process, fake websites could be set up constantly, trapping users on a malicious site or hacking their computers and stealing vital data.

The security precautions surrounding these individuals is of course of upmost importance. Once a year the keyholders must share an image of themselves holding their secure key in one hand and a copy of the day’s newspaper in the other. The meetings themselves are even more secure, we are talking biometric hand scanners, codes and a ‘mantrap’ in which only one door can be open at any time. And that’s just to get to the canteen!

With all the security surrounding each key, what would happen if a nefarious individual got hold of one? If just one of the keys was stolen or damaged every website would register as untrustworthy. It’s not exactly planes falling out of the sky, but the entire system would have to be rebuilt to allow continued use.

It can all seem a bit far-fetched, but these are the processes set out by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann). The US based not-for-profit organisation, often comes under discussion as it is not a government body, in true cold war fashion tensions still rise between the designated keyholder for Russia and the US, but this is not much more than office politics rather than world ending arguments.

A member from The Guardian was actually invited in to the secret secure meeting, only to find that the event was much more mundane than one would imagine. In fact, the full ceremony is live-streamed throughout, although there aren’t many watching the five hours of conversation. The stream views peaked at 12.

So, there we have it, there is a real secret society that holds the keys to the internet but not quite in the way we imagine. Whilst the negative effects of a key being stolen would be dramatic and far-reaching, you would have to be Ethan Hunt to break through these security precautions.

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