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Return of the Internet Illuminati: This Time, It's Personal


When we last left the Internet Illuminati, the seven people chosen to hold the keys to the Internet, there were more questions than answers. The world's very trust hung in the balance ...

Photo by: Kim Davies

If you’re just tuning in, a security system was recently put in place to protect the Internet from terrorist or other attack. Seven people from seven countries — the U.S., UK, Burkina Faso, Trinidad and Tobago, Canada, China — were selected to hold keys to the Internet.

Well, actually, they're key fragments. When five of the seven are united (accounting for a margin of error of two due to dance recitals, root canals, after-work drinks planned with an old college friend months ago, etc.), they unlock a master key to the master phone book of the Internet, which basically is responsible for routing all Internet traffic.

It left burning questions such as, why Burkina Faso? Trinidad and Tobago — really? And, could you get a direct flight from either place to an undisclosed location in the U.S. in time to save the Internet? Furthermore, where would you keep a key to the Internet?

So we went straight to the source, Icann’s Rick Lamb, who’s heading up the Domain Name System Security Extensions program, for some answers.

Right off the bat, two things you didn’t expect: First, these key holders are volunteers. They’re not paid. They don't get body guards. They don’t even get reimbursed for air fare should they have to drop everything and run to save the Internet.

(You know what that means, right? That Kate Gosselin, the reality star famous for being the mother of eight and for having an asymmetrical haircut, is better guarded — and compensated — than the holders of the keys to the Internet.)

Second, the first rule of Internet Key Club isn’t that you don’t talk about Internet Key Club (unlike Fight Club) — it’s that you ALWAYS talk about Internet Key Club, telling the public everything from the names of the key holders to where the master keys are located. There are even maps online of the facilities that house the master keys. And, if you can stay awake, you can watch the seven-hour YouTube video of the key ceremony.

“We need the trust of the public,” Lamb explained for the decision to make everything public.

Trust is job one at the Key Club — not only are there seven key holders but there are another 14 people involved as back-up key holders, key testers, etc.

“No one is going to trust one person — or one entity — to do this,” Lamb explained.

Now, about that Burkina Faso thing.

Apparently, when Icann, Verisign and the Department of Commerce dreamed up this security system, they put out an open application process, calling for volunteers to be the key holders.

Lamb said they had two criteria in mind: 1) geodiversity and 2) that the candidates be respected members of the domain-name system community.

“The Internet is made up of people from all over the world,” Lamb explained. “So we wanted to spread [the trust] across people that represented the Internet community.”

But — Burkina Faso? Trinidad & Tobago?

“That’s who applied,” Lamb said quite simply.

So no bellyaching, France. That goes for you, too, New Zealand. You had your chance!

As for how quickly you could get out of Burkina Faso or Trinidad & Tobago in the event of a global emergency, Lamb admits it might be difficult but said that’s OK — they would have a window of 90 days to restore the system in the event of an emergency.

Presumably, no matter how deep in the Burkinan outback you might be, you could get out within 90 days.

And, it should be noted, the seven would only need to be tapped in the event that the two locations where the master keys are held — data centers in El Segundo, Calif., and Culpepper, Va. — are destroyed.

Now, the little matter of where you would keep a key to the Internet.

It is recommended (though not enforced, because they are, after all, volunteers) that the key holders get a safe deposit box to keep their key protected from fire, flood — or clone attack.

This is particularly important because these keys aren't like hotel keys — they can't be wiped remotely if you lose them. If you do lose your key, then all the key holders are summoned and new keys will have to be made.

All because one guy screwed up.

You know you would never live that down. Nerds have memories like a steel trap. And, they have algorithms to back it up — ad infinitum.

On the plus side, there was some sci-fi coolness after all: Apparently there are multiple cage doors and other security measures you have to go through to get to the master keys. “Like a “Get Smart”-type thing, Lamb explains. (Did NOT see that Get Smart reference coming.) And, probably the coolest part: If any unauthorized person tries to tamper with the master keys, they will self-destruct.

The screen fades to black. And an announcer says in a deep voice:

They are the CHOSEN SEVEN.

They hail from all over the world — from the U.S., UK ... and, yes, even Burkina Faso.

I know, I wouldn't have guessed that either.

Their mission is to protect and secure the Interne —

The whole place is gonna blow ... RUN!!!!!!!!!!

OK, OK. There wouldn't actually be an explosion. It's more of a digital combustion. (For this, Lamb says apologetically, "I know, it's not as dramatic as we would've liked.") But still — you know there will be actual explosions in the Hollywood script. How else will they get Matt Damonto return their calls?!


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