Community Impact of OpenPGP Certificate Flooding
I wrote yesterday about a recent OpenPGP certificate flooding attack, what I think it means for the ecosystem, and how it impacted me. This is a brief followup, trying to zoom out a bit and think about why it affected me emotionally the way that it did.
One of the reasons this situation makes me sad is not just that it's more breakage that needs cleaning up, or even that my personal identity certificate was on the receiving end. It's that it has impacted (and will continue impacting at least in the short term) many different people -- friends and colleagues -- who I know and care about. It's not just that they may be the next targets of such a flooding attack if we don't fix things, although that's certainly possible. What gets me is that they were affected because they know me and communicate with me. They had my certificate in their keyring, or in some mutually-maintained system, and as a result of what we know to be good practice -- regular keyring refresh -- they got burned.
Of course, they didn't get actually, physically burned. But from several conversations i've had over the last 24 hours, i know personally at least a half-dozen different people who i personally know have lost hours of work, being stymied by the failing tools, some of that time spent confused and anxious and frustrated. Some of them thought they might have lost access to their encrypted e-mail messages entirely. Others were struggling to wrestle a suddenly non-responsive machine back into order. These are all good people doing other interesting work that I want to succeed, and I can't give them those hours back, or relieve them of that stress retroactively.
One of the points I've been driving at for years is that the goals of much of the work I care about (confidentiality; privacy; information security and data sovereignty; healthy communications systems) are not individual goods. They are interdependent, communally-constructed and communally-defended social properties.
As an engineering community, we failed -- and as an engineer, I contributed to that failure -- at protecting these folks in this instance about because we left things sloppy and broken and supposedly "good enough".
Fortunately, this failure isn't the worst situation. There's no arbitrary code execution, no permanent data loss (unless people get panicked and delete everything), no accidental broadcast of secrets that shouldn't be leaked.
And as much as this is a community failure, there are also communities of people who have recognized these problems and have been working to solve them. So I'm pretty happy that good people have been working on infrastructure that saw this coming, and were preparing for it, even if their tools haven't been as fully implemented (or as widely adopted) as they should be yet. Those projects include:
Autocrypt -- which avoids any interaction with the keyserver network in favor of in-band key discovery.
Web Key Directory or WKD, which maps e-mail addresses to a user-controlled publication space for their OpenPGP Keys.
DANE OPENPGPKEY which lets a domain owner publish their user's minimal OpenPGP certificates in the DNS directly.
Hagrid, the implementation behind the keys.openpgp.org keyserver, which presents the opportunity for a updates-only interface as well as a place for people to publish their certificates if their domain controller doesn't support WKD or DANE OPENPGPKEY. Hagrid is also an excellent first public showing for the Sequoia project, a Rust-based implementation of the OpenPGP standards that hopefully we can build more tooling on top of in the years to come.
Let's keep pushing these community-driven approaches forward and get the ecosystem to a healthier place.