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"Digital Seven" Tasked With Securing the Net in Case of Emergency

Meet the seven people tasked with keeping the Internet from breaking down in the event of a national catastrophe.

Dan Kaminski Dave Bullock/Wikipedia

And not just any catastrophe. Think Bad News with a capital `B': Something along the line of dirty bombs going off downtown or giant asteroids smashing into Washington D.C., New York and San Francisco simultaneously.  These seven have been entrusted with high-tech cryptographic keys to the Internet.  Their mission: To congregate at a secure location in the U.S. where they will enter their respective keys into the system to recover a master or root key. That will ensure that the world's cyber network remains protected against fraud or manipulation. (This video explains more about how the system is supposed to operate.)

The announcement by Internet watchdog organization ICANN set off the predictable media frenzy to the point of sensationalism - something that ICANN's Paul Lamb acknowledged was nearly inevitable given the obvious news angle  Still, he said, he hoped that people would have a more sober appreciation of the project after the initial frisson of excitement fades.

"If this becomes a laughing stock, then the whole effort would be a waste," he said, adding that the other other volunteers backing up the top seven "may be even more important because we see them four times a year."

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"No one's just going to trust any one guy to do this," he added."To get that trust, we ask for these volunteers."

Paul Kane (right) SetSquared Partnership

The ICANN volunteers come from the United States, Trinidad and Tobago, China, the United Kingdom, Canada, Burkina Faso and the Czech Republic. 

Perhaps the best-known member of the list comes from the United States. Dan Kaminsky is the Chief Scientist for Recursion Ventures. He came to wide public attention in connection with his work uncovering a critical flaw in the Internet's Domain Name System in 2008.

After discovering the existence of a network vulnerability, Kaminsky worked in tandem with DNS vendors to come up with a security patch. Ironically, Kaminsky took heat from some in the security community because he chose to work in secret with the vendors instead of immediately publicizing his findings, which were released to wider dissemination a month after the patch got issued.

Paul Kane is currently chairman of the Board of Directors of CENTR, an association of Internet domain registries. Like others in this group, Kane is a heavy hitter within Internet circles. He has advised several governments as well as the United Nations about e-commerce and Internet. He also was involved in the creation of ICANN.

Bevil Wooding hails from Trinidad and Tobego. An Internet strategist with a non-profit research institute called Packet Clearing House, Wooding also serves as an executive with Congress WBN, an international non-profit founded in Trinidad. He's been active in advocating for the use of Internet technologies in industrializing nations.

Another member of the Digital 7 is Norm Ritchie, head of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority. He told the that his key is stored safely away in a

Norm Ritchie

"tamper-proof evidence bag" - just in case. Still, he said, it was unlikely that an emergency would cause the entire Internet to collapse at one time.

And what if there was such an emergency, he was asked? "Then we probably have bigger things to worry about than the Internet," he said. It's a valid point. And assuming the worst case - where the key holders are mobilized to meet - what happens to the Internet if transportation and communication networks are knocked out of service? Fodder for another day. Meanwhile, information on other members was not immediately available but the roster was filled out by Jiankang Yao from China, Moussa Guebre from Burkina Faso, Ondrej Sury of the Czech Republic. (Here's the full list of people involved in the Domain Name System Security system.)
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