''Peer reproduction''?
Key signing parties between trust and subtle othering

Silke Meyer (Freie Universität Berlin)

	Commons License
"Peer reproduction?" Key signing parties between trust and subtle othering by Silke Meyer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Germany License.

A short introduction to key signing parties

Key signing parties are a ritual belonging to encrypted electronic communication. They take part during congresses or big meetings of the free software community.

I will shortly summarize what happens at such a party:

gpg key in text form
Figure 1: A gpg key in text form

People generate a pair of keys (a public and a private key). They publish their public keys on the internet or send them to communication partners via e-mail. The public key is used by others to encrypt an e-mail to the owner of the key. Only this particular person should be able to decrypt the message.
Key signing parties are arranged to assure that public keys really belong to the person that allegedly published it. The authenticity of a key is certified by the digital signatures of those who have checked the “true” identity of the owner.

Signatures on a gpg key
Figure 2: Signatures on a gpg key are publicly accessible on the internet

The idea behind this is that not everyone is able to check every identity because people live too far away from each other. But if one can rely on signatures which others have given to a key, one can assume that a key is authentic. This notion is called “web of trust”:

Web of trust

Figure 3: The "web of trust" between the participants after a key signing party
(published on http://wiki.linuxtag.org/w/Keysigning_2008 by the organizer)

A has signed keys with B and C, so B and C could “trust” each other's keys, because there is a linkage, namely A's digital signature on both their keys. Big key signing parties with many participants make this ''web of trust'' grow very fast. One could say that the ''web of trust'' is a network of individuals who want to be sure about the 'true identity' of their communication partners.


It is important to me to draw your attention to the interaction between participants during keysigning. I observed a few parties in Germany and found that the bulk of communication is about basic differences between the participants.
Here, I would like to discuss to which extent the ritual is influenced by categories like nationality and what this means for a community that wants to be international.

German as lingua franca at international events in Germany

During the first part of a keysigning party, the attendance list is checked:

Attendance list of a key signing party
Figure 4: On the attendance list of a party there are checkboxes to note whose key finger print and ID card has been checked.

Are all those present who applied for the event? Do they all confirm that the finger prints of their keys are authentically reproduced on the list?
At international key signing parties I observed several times that during the welcome or the check of attendance single persons piped up and said they did not understand German. They asked if it was possible to continue in English or to translate. Language is linked to provenance. By defining German as the lingua franca on international community meetings in Germany, some people unintentionally make an issue out of their different background by asking for translation. Generally, it's no problem for anyone to switch to English, but evidently nobody came to think of it before. This behaviour produces a rule in common practive: participants speak German.

Passports: the artefact in the centre of attention

Control of passports at a key signing party
Figure 5: Control of passports during a key signing party.
(Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/arctanx/2395905554/ by arctanx under a http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)

The only certificate that proofs one's identity is issued by state departments: In Germany this can be a passport or an identity card. Remarkably no driving licences are accepted.
At key signing parties the passport becomes the center of attention.

Figure 6: On the attendance list of a party there are checkboxes to note whose key finger print and ID card has been checked. (Source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:MustermannPA.jpg. This image is in the public domain.)

A passport contains information that is picked up by the participants to start brief, small talk-like conversations. Passports thus offer the possibility to talk about where people come from, about their appearance (photo), age, and gender.

Passports offer certain information for small talk, e.g.
nationality, appearance, name
Figure 7: Topics for small talk.

This might explain why talking about otherness becomes such an integral part of key signing.
Let me go into detail:

Dialect as deviance

On the one hand foreign languages were an issue at the key signing parties but I also observed that dialects or languages as Swiss German constantly were a topic of conversation. “Say a sentence in Swiss German or Swabian to prove where you come from.” Remarks like this are meant to be jokes. My point is to say that also by jokes the construction of otherness (or worse, of inequality) is perpetuated.

Names as carriers of exoticism

I frequently observed that special attention is paid to participants' names. Questions like ''Where does that name come from?'', ''How do you pronouce that?'' are very common. The same people were asked again and again during a key signing party. Their interaction partners tried to pronounce their names and made comments like "oh, cool". Surely this is meant to be friendly. One wants to demonstrate to be interested in the partner. But I argue that this has an effect: It gives an exotic distinction to people who bear uncommon names. There is no personal exchange with anyone during a signing party. The interaction is restricted to noticing exotic names and maybe finding them "cool". At the same time, making someone appear exotic, confirms a norm: the non-exotic, commonly known names correspond to the norm.
(This makes me think of situations in which people wearing a veil are told that their German is good...)

Authenticity and validity of passports

What is recognized as an identification paper? In Germany official identification papers are passports and ID cards. Elsewhere, this is different. Not only did I observe that participants utter doubts in the authenticity of non-German identification papers, often enounced as jokes (e.g. "self-made in colour printer"). But also I saw that in some cases, people refused to sign a key of someone who brought, for example, a Swiss driving licence which for him or her is a valid identification paper. Individuals can decide to produce others as untrustworthy persons or not.

One could here talk of a lack of cross-cultural competence. The norm is given by the majority of the attendants. It seems difficult to put oneself in the position of someone who knows different norms and to accept the papers they bring as equivalents of the own.

What often happens is that participants have expired passports which confronts the crowd with a problem: Shall they obey to the strict rules of key signing and refuse their trust or shall they turn a blind eye to the rules? In my opinion, such moments of irritation show paradoxes in the ritual. They raise the question what is a "trustworthy" communication partner? An honest and law-abiding citizen who at once exchanges expired papers?


We have heard a lot about the community being male-dominated. Not surprisingly, there are very few women present at key signing parties as in most parts of the community.

At this ritual, I had the general impression that where people come from is made much more important than their gender. But I observed situations in which gender is subtly meaningful:

One example was during the check of attendance: Everyone is taking notes on one's list, to fill in who is attending the event. The heads are turned down towards the lists while the names are called. The moment a female name is called, all the heads turn up to look at her.

A second example were comments during the check of identity. Someone calls out loudly "Ah, you always stick longer to talk to women!"

Knowledge is a prerequisite

At big key signing parties, all knowledge about key signing is required. No explanations are provided in the course of it. There ist no room for questions. The attendants do not challenge the abstract idea of building up a "web of trust", let alone ask how e-mail encryption or key generation work. At the big events, so-called newbies stood in the way. They did not understand which principle the crowd followed lining up in a queue.

The one small party I saw, with about 20 participants, was an exception. Here, the organizers provided quite a lot of information on how the ritual is carried out. They even reserved a whole hour before the actual meeting for answering questions. However, I did not see many persons who asked for an introduction.

Demonstrations of expertise

Figure 8: Here, the participants' place on the ranking list of the best interlinked keys are mentioned on the attendance list.

Key signing thus mainly is a ritual for experts.

There is even a ranking list of experts on the internet: the one thousand keys that are best interlinked with other keys. During the parties some participants kept joking about their high positions in concurrence to others', while beginners did not know what they were on about.

Summary: Key signing as a practice of othering

I see a fundamental paradox in the ritual of key signing:

One the one hand, the community criticizes the establishment of a surveillance society. Amongst others, encrypted communication is important to them to protect their privacy from the authorities. One might say that key signing is a public demonstration of people who want to stress their consciousness of data being "sensitive". This raises the question why the "web of trust" is published online so that whole social networks are easy to reconstruct by the signatures.

On the other hand, the state is handing out the only accepted proof of identity, namely passports. I assume that the relevance of papers in the ritual is one reason for nationality, language and provenance being made important apart from the fact that we all probably have these categories quite well incorporated. What other ways we can think of to build up trust...?

We have seen that the discursive production of otherness is a constitutive part of key signing. I would say that two sorts of "others" are produced in the ritual:

Focus on the
date of expiry of a passport
Figure 9: No trust without valid identification papers

First, there are persons who are not trustworthy because they do not have valid or accepted papers, but who take part in the party. Their disobedience to the rules of key signing makes them suspicious. In this logic, only citizens are trustworthy. The identification with one or more nationalities are crucial to be taken as an equivalent partner.

A cow wondering: 'What is
Figure 10: Otherness is mentioned over and over again.

Second, there are "others" whom can be trusted by signing their keys (because they do have valid papers), but whose "otherness" has to be mentioned over and over again. They deviate from the average participant because of their background or body, those who have uncommon names, or speak in a different way. Every mentioning updates the inscription as "other" and helps establishing the norm.

Thereby, nationality becomes one fundamental category that structures the practice of key signing. Quite a few of my observations allow conclusions as to a lack of cross-cultural competence. It remains to consider the question what the norm actually is. The huge majority incorporating the norm of key signing attendants was in these cases of German nationality, German speaking, and of German offspring, male and specialists in key signing rather than newbies.

Of course, my image is not that homogenous. I have to mention other topics of small talk like the community projects the participants are active in. The list of attendants can give clues as to these projects (e-mail addresses). Jokes about new ID cards containing biometric data are quite common, too. This can be understood as political criticism in a context where people nevertheless rely on those ID cards as identification papers. And I have to mention little conversations alongside the events where questions concerning the ritual were answered "inofficially".

What's the point of my talk?

Such processes of othering I described have effects on the community. Drawing on basic distinctions between people makes it easy to open up classifications based upon characteristics. My observations make me pay special attention because the same processes basically underly discrimination.

In this context, it is very hard to distinguish between friendly jokes towards the guests of the event and the subtle drawing on discriminating patterns that are deeply embedded in mainstream society. Such cognitive patterns are long-lasting, often structured in a dichotomous way and they are often evoked unconsciously. They are based upon the premise that people and societies differ from each other in significant ways. This can be the base for racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and all sorts of discrimination.

The outstanding issues are