Identity and Cryptography in the Current Year

I’ve got about three different lead-ins to this post rattling around my head. There’s the “we don’t have flying cars, but we have public-key cryptography that isn’t completely terrible” angle. There’s the “truly we are living in a William Gibson novel” angle. But I think I’ll take the “here’s a true story about how public-key cryptography is being used right this second” angle. Everybody loves a good anecdote, right?

So there’s this fellow by the name of Michael Anderson. Big alt-right Trump supporter type. He tends to approach Twitter the way Leroy Jenkins approaches WoW raids: big, loud, and in a way that aggravates a large number of the party. Mr. Anderson has had his account banned repeatedly, both before and after Twitter’s recent purges of alt-right accounts. But every time his account is suspended for good, he makes a new account and keeps on trucking.

If you or I had to start a new twitter account, it would take us quite a while to get the word out that the new account is actually a replacement for the old account. It would likely take months to regain just a fraction of the followers. If Twitter didn’t grace us with a blue check mark, some would be skeptical that the new account was ours. But MicroTurkeyLeaks’ few thousand followers are able to easily find his latest account, even though he’s cycled through as many as three accounts in a single day. And what’s more, they’re almost positive it’s his, even without a blue checkmark.

How does he manage this impressive feat? keybase.io.

Keybase describes itself thusly:

Keybase maps your identity to your public keys, and vice versa.

Traditional use of PGP (the most popular form of public-key cryptography) requires key-signing parties in real life in order for people to vouch for each other’s PGP identities. Keybase uses less direct methods of verification. I don’t wish to get into the nitty gritty of cryptographic signing here, but once you have a PGP public key in keybase’s system, you can then sign proofs on various social media accounts, as well as any websites you run. Others can then review and sign off on those proofs, building a web of trust much more easily than with straight PGP.

I’ve set up a keybase profile for P.F. Hawkins. I cannot stress enough that not only has much thought been put into the system, but it’s been the right thought. The process was streamlined, the UX intuitive, the copy understandable and engaging… I’ll stop gushing over it sometime, I suppose, but only when it (or a system like it) becomes de rigueur.

We don’t have flying cars, but we now have non-terrible public-key cryptography. Truly we are living in a William Gibson novel.


P.F. Hawkins

2016-11-20

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