Ceremonies to Anchor Trust

2020-02-14 18:05


Through this intriguing Register report I learned about the DNSSEC root-signing ceremony. It happens quarterly in alternating fashion on the east and west coasts of the US. The carefully scripted ceremony, lasting over two hours, is meant to anchor the web of trust in the DNS, the Internet’s domain name system. To this end it is streamed live and archived for posterity.

The Reg article linked above recounts the foofaraw surrounding the most recent such signing ceremony, slated for February 12, 2020. Participants from around the world had arrived in El Segundo, CA. The ceremony did not come off on that date because its host, IANA (the Internet Assigned Numbers Agency of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), could not open one of two physical safes that hold the essential raw materials for the occasion.

Reading about this modern ceremony, performed quarterly for 10 years now, immediately put me in mind of a similar ritual, the Trial of the Pyx, staged in London for 738 years, for a substantially similar purpose: anchoring trust in the English currency.

The latter ceremony is considerably more elaborate, involving as it does The Queen’s Remberancer, representatives of The Royal Mint, and be-robed freemen of the Worshipful Company of Goldsmiths meeting in a gold-encrusted hall belonging to the goldsmiths’ guild (see photo below). But the ceremonies have compellingly similar shapes overall. Consider the rosters of participants:

DNSSEC Signing CeremonyTrial of the Pyx
The Ceremony Administrator The Queen's Remberancer
An Internal Witness Chief Clerk to The Queen’s Remberancer
The Credentials Safe Controller The Clerk of the Goldsmiths’ Company
The Hardware Safe Controller The Prime Warden
Crypto Officer #1 The Second Warden
Crypto Officer #2 Foreman
Crypto Officer #3 [ 13 other goldsmiths ]
[ other crypto officers ] 

Each of the two trust rituals begins with the ceremonial opening of a vault. In the more modern case, two safes are involved, the key to each of which is held by an individual IANA staffer. The safes contain electronics and documents that will cryptographically bind the identities of notables from the DNS community to the key that will be used to sign the root keys of all of the top-level domains comprising the DNS. For the more ancient ceremony, a number of separate holders of the Keys to the Necessary must converge on the vault holding the Pyx: wooden boxes full of randomly selected English coins that will be tested for fidelity to the prevailing monetary standards.

Fun fact no. 1: The Trial of the Pyx — the oldest continuously operating judicial process in the world — has been held beginning on the second Tuesday in February in every year since 1282. This year the now-postponed DNSSEC root-signing ceremony happened to be scheduled for the second Wednesday in February.

Fun fact no. 2: The Trial of the Pyx features prominently in the finale of Neal Stephenson’s massive (2,500-page) set of historical novels collectively dubbed The Baroque Cycle — Quicksilver, The Confusion, and The System of the World.

I do have to wonder whether we will still be performing the DNSSEC root-signing ceremony in the year 2748.