This sounds like something straight out of a Sherlock or Dan Brown book but it isn’t. The whole internet is actually controlled by seven, actual physical secret keys.
A reporter at guardian was recently allowed to observe the secret ceremony called “The Key ceremony”. These important people are part of a covert organisation: the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
Each of the 14 primary keyholders owns a traditional metal key to a safety deposit box, which in turn contains a smartcard, which in turn activates a machine that creates a new master key.’Photograph: Laurence Mathieu for the Guardian Laurence Mathieu/Guardian
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.
For instance, type 22.214.171.124 into your browser and you’ll be taken to Google’s web page. But www.google.com is easier for people to remember. ICANN maps the numbers (easier for computers to use) with words (easier for humans to use).
If someone were to gain control of ICANN’s database that person would control the Internet. For instance, the person could send people to fake bank websites instead of real bank websites.
A security controller slams the safe door shut, triggering a seismic sensor, which in turn triggers door locks. The keyholders are locked in an 8ft square cage.’ Photograph: Laurence Mathieu for the Guardian Laurence Mathieu/Guardian
On the other hand, if a calamity happened, the ICANN database could need to be rebuilt. So ICANN came up with a way to do that without entrusting too much control to any one person. It selected seven people to be key holders and gave each one an actual key to Internet. It selected seven more people to be backup keyholders: 14 people in all.
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.
A web security expert steps forward to read out a nonsense sequence of words generated by the previous key: “Flatfoot warranty brickyard Camelot blackjack vagabond…”’ Photograph: Laurence Mathieu for the Guardian Laurence Mathieu/Guardian
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.
Here’s Ball’s detailed account of the ceremony that most recently occurred.
Here’s a video of the very first key ceremony conducted in 2010. Skip to 1:58 to see the ceremony.