This sounds like something out of a Dan Brown book but it isn’t: The whole internet is controlled by seven actual, physical keys. The Guardian’s James Ball was recently allowed to observe the highly secure ritual known as a key ceremony.
The people conducting the ceremony are part of an organization called the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN). ICANN is responsible for assigning numerical internet addresses to websites and computers and translating them into the normal web addresses that people type into their browsers.
Both the US commerce department and the Department of Homeland Security take a close interest, to differing degrees, in Icann’s operations. In the wake of the ongoing revelations of NSA spying, and of undermined internet security, this does not sit well with many of Icann’s overseas partners. Some, including Russia and Brazil – whose president has made such demands very public – are calling for a complete overhaul of how the internet is run, suggesting it should be put under UN auspices.
If the master key were lost or stolen today, the consequences might not be calamitous:some users would receive security warnings, some networks would have problems, but not much more. But once everyone has moved to the new, more secure system (this is expected in the next three to five years), the effects of losing or damaging the key would be far graver. While every server would still be there, nothing would connect: it would all register as untrustworthy. The whole system, the backbone of the internet, would need to be rebuilt over weeks or months. What would happen if an intelligence agency or hacker – the NSA or Syrian Electronic Army, say – got hold of a copy of the master key? It’s possible they could redirect specific targets to fake websites designed to exploit their computers – although Icann and the keyholders say this is unlikely.
The physical keys unlock safety deposit boxes stashed around the world.Inside those boxes are smart keycards. Put the seven smartcards together and you have the “master key.” The master key is really some computer code, a password of sorts, that can access the ICANN database.
Four times a year since 2010 the seven keyholders meet for the key ceremony where they generate a new master key,i.e. a new password.The security to be admitted to the ceremony is intense, Ball reports, and involves passing through a series of locked doors using key codes and hand scanners, until entering a room so secure that no electronic communications can escape it.
The group conducts the ritual, then each person files out of the room one by one, and then they all head to a restaurant and party.
And then odinary people log on and use the Internet for such useful purposes as porn surfing and letting out secrets into that giant CIAMOSSAD DATABASE FACEBOOK