Building your web of trust

Wanting to use GnuPG yourself is not enough. In order to use to communicate securely with others you must have a web of trust. At first glance, however, building a web of trust is a daunting task. The people with whom you communicate need to use GnuPG[1], and there needs to be enough key signing so that keys can be considered valid. These are not technical problems; they are social problems. Nevertheless, you must overcome these problems if you want to use GnuPG.

When getting started using GnuPG it is important to realize that you need not securely communicate with every one of your correspondents. Start with a small circle of people, perhaps just yourself and one or two others who also want to exercise their right to privacy. Generate your keys and sign each other's public keys. This is your initial web of trust. By doing this you will appreciate the value of a small, robust web of trust and will be more cautious as you grow your web in the future.

In addition to those in your initial web of trust, you may want to communicate securely with others who are also using GnuPG. Doing so, however, can be awkward for two reasons: (1) you do not always know when someone uses or is willing to use GnuPG, and (2) if you do know of someone who uses it, you may still have trouble validating their key. The first reason occurs because people do not always advertise that they use GnuPG. The way to change this behavior is to set the example and advertise that you use GnuPG. There are at least three ways to do this: you can sign messages you mail to others or post to message boards, you can put your public key on your web page, or, if you put your key on a keyserver, you can put your key ID in your email signature. If you advertise your key then you make it that much more acceptable for others to advertise their keys. Furthermore, you make it easier for others to start communicating with you securely since you have taken the initiative and made it clear that you use GnuPG.

Key validation is more difficult. If you do not personally know the person whose key you want to sign, then it is not possible to sign the key yourself. You must rely on the signatures of others and hope to find a chain of signatures leading from the key in question back to your own. To have any chance of finding a chain, you must take the intitive and get your key signed by others outside of your intitial web of trust. An effective way to accomplish this is to participate in key signing parties. If you are going to a conference look ahead of time for a key signing party, and if you do not see one being held, offer to hold one. You can also be more passive and carry your fingerprint with you for impromptu key exchanges. In such a situation the person to whom you gave the fingerprint would verify it and sign your public key once he returned home.

Keep in mind, though, that this is optional. You have no obligation to either publically advertise your key or sign other people's keys. The power of GnuPG is that it is flexible enough to adapt to your security needs whatever they may be. The social reality, however, is that you will need to take the initiative if you want to grow your web of trust and use GnuPG for as much of your communication as possible.



In this section, GnuPG refers to the GnuPG implementation of OpenPGP as well as other implementations such as NAI's PGP product.