Thoughts on Keybase

Robert J. Hansen rjh at
Mon Dec 15 19:40:22 CET 2014

Keybase ( is trying to solve the Web of Trust problem 
in a new way.  They're currently in beta, but I was able to snag an 
invitation.  (I have no invites to give out, unfortunately.)  The 
following is just a write-up on how it works and what my impressions of 
it are.  You may find it interesting.  You may not.  :)



In a nutshell, "everything."  In my own experience, the Web of Trust 
goes pretty much completely unused.  There are several reasons for this. 
  The first is that trust is intransitive: if Alice trusts Bob and Bob 
trusts Charlene, it doesn't necessarily follow that Alice trusts 
Charlene.  (I like to imagine that Alice and Charlene were competing for 
Bob's affections once upon a time, and that Alice still wishes Bob 
wouldn't trust that hussy.[1])

The dream of the Web of Trust is that trust chains would form and Alice 
would be able to trust Charlene's certificate as well as Doug's and 
Elaine's and all the way on through to Xavier, Yvonne and Zenobia. 
Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.  If Alice trusts Bob, that 
means Alice has to trust all those people trusted by Bob... or even all 
those people trusted by all those people trusted by Bob... or even all 
those people trusted by all those people trusted by all those people 
trusted by Bob.  It gets impractical really fast.

In twenty years of using PGP and GnuPG, I've relied on the Web of Trust 
a total of something like six times.  It was a neat idea, but as far as 
general rollout goes it's been a dismal failure.


Voice doesn't give us much confidence in identity.  Voice allows us to 
do out-of-band verification [2], but it doesn't let us confirm identity. 
  Most people think identity is something that gets proven by documents, 
but identity is actually a lot more nebulous than that.  I normally 
require two forms of government-issued identity documents before I'll 
sign a certificate, but I haven't seen two government-issued identity 
documents from my own mother.  That doesn't mean I think she's not my 
mother.  It means I've somewhere along the line done an identity 
verification that has nothing to do with documents.


In a phrase, identity is the name we give to continuity of agency over 
time.  Knowing who's responsible for something right here, now, in this 
moment, is all well-and-good, but it's also kind of trivial: "the person 
standing there with a smoking gun is the one who's responsible for the 
body on the floor."  Doesn't tell you very much, really.  But knowing 
that person is also "the person who bought a bagel at a delicatessen 
yesterday" and "the person who's driven a Peugeot to work every day for 
the last three years" and "the person who for the last several years has 
lived at this address" all builds up to give us a sense of *what choices 
this person has made* (agency) and *over what time frame these choices 
have been made* (time).

Once we have a concept of agency over time, that by itself is an 
identity.  A legal name specifies an agent, but not an identity. 
Identity requires history.  A track record.  A paper trail, as it were.


Keybase has given up on the Web of Trust and on using official 
government records to prove who people are.  Instead, proofs are 
established by *what you've done* (agency) and *for how long you've been 
able to do it* (time).

For instance, visit this website:

You'll see a list of several "what I can do"s.  Key 0xD6B98E10 has been 
used to sign a tweet containing an assertion of identity: "I am Rob 
Hansen, robertjhansen on Twitter."  Thereby, key 0xD6B98E10 has been 
bound to my Twitter social-media identity [3].  You can pull this tweet 
down from Twitter's own servers and verify the statement yourself; you 
don't have to take keybase's word for it.  (In fact, you probably 
*should* verify it for yourself.)

Likewise, I've made similar statements of identity for my GitHub account 
and for a couple of web pages I run.  These disparate activities 
comprise a record of things I have done (agency) over a time period 
(time), which is ... identity.


It would be pretty foolish to think my legal name was Rob Hansen based 
solely on keybase, yes.  Keybase makes no assertion that someone is 
correctly representing their legal name.  But how many of us really care 
about that?  The more common use case seems to be that we want to know 
we're not being catfished [4].  I could be named Maurice Micklewhite and 
it wouldn't change the fact that I control that Twitter account, that 
GitHub account, or those webpages.  If the fraction of my identity that 
you care about maps well to that realm, then keybase is a pretty 
effective way to verify that fraction.


Sure.  People on this list know a completely different me than my 
parents do.  You're the only one who knows the fullness of the choices 
you've made over the course of your life: you're the only one who knows 
who you truly are when the chips are down.  The rest of us only ever get 
to see a fraction of the true identity.


Given how miserable the WoT's adoption rate is, any improvement will be 
a big difference.  In its present form I don't see it as making a big 
difference to the world at large, though.  Right now keybase allows you 
to certify your Twitter, GitHub, Reddit, CoinBase, and Hacker News 
identities, as well as BitCoin addresses and any web pages you control. 
  For the geek cognoscenti that's great, but for the world at large it's 
not going to matter half a damn until and unless keybase gets either 
Google+ or Facebook on board.


It's a cool idea and worth looking into.  :)

[1] Americanism: "an impudent or immoral woman."  Generally considered 
rude, but not profane.

[2] Kind-of sort-of: most phone traffic nowadays flows over the network, 
so it's actually in-band.

[3] I rarely if ever use Twitter.  If you're a Twitter fiend feel free 
to follow me, but don't expect much.

[4] Americanism: "identity deception."

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