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Theme fund: NGI0 PET
Start: 2019-08
End: 2022-10
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Middleware and identity

OpenPGP Certificate Authority

Managing OpenPGP keys for communities and organisation

OpenPGP CA is a tool for managing OpenPGP keys within an organization. Its primary goal is to make it trivial for end users to authenticate the OpenPGP keys of users in their organization, and in adjacent organizations. In an OpenPGP CA-using organization, users delegate authentication to an in-house CA. This allows users to securely and seamlessly communicate via PGP-encrypted email without having to manually compare fingerprints, without having to understand OpenPGP keys or signatures, and without having to trust a third-party with potentially conflicting interests. This goal is achieved by shifting the authentication burden from individual users to an organization's administrator, and providing a tool that largely automates key creation, and signing as well as key dissemination. Importantly, because OpenPGP CA works within the existing OpenPGP framework, users do not need any new software to take advantage of OpenPGP CA's benefits; they can continue to use existing email clients and encryption plugins. Further, OpenPGP CA can co-exist with other authentication approaches, like traditional key signing workflows.

Why does this actually matter to end users?

Email was designed without privacy or security in mind, which is amazing for such a popular service. When you send an email, anyone that can gain access to your mail server or the mail server of the recipient can read your mail, from top to bottom. And copy it, for later usage. It is often compared to sending a post card, and of course in many cases there may be little harm in others reading what the weather is like in Paris. But what if you want to use email to send something confidential, something you do not want to share with others? Like a love letter, a political rant or an important contract? And what if you can't actually trust the mail man, for instance because the other party is using a free email service known to search through everything? Or what if you don' t like the fact that your writings are stored in a country you have never been, with different laws that may not be compatible with your thoughts about the world? Or what if you live in a country that has an unhealthy interest in bringing down certain political voices, or are part of a cultural minority that is at risk?

Computer specialists have been protecting their email with encryption for decades. This is the equivalent of putting your message very carefully in the blender, pressing the button before anyone else has read your mesage, shredding it up and sending a packet of shreds over to the other end. The amazing thing about cryptography is that you can magically (or rather mathematically) make it possible for your secret love - and not anyone else - to recreate the message from the shreds, and know it was you - and not anyone else - that sent it. For the rest of the world, the message would be meaningless garble pretty much forever.

However, the solution they came up with is not easy for normal people to work with. You need a lot of patience and technical skill to make use of it. Many people have tried, and could not get it to work or gave up because it hindered them. It was in fact too hard to turn it on by default. This means that most people are probably not even aware that it is possible to protect the contents of their email with cryptography. And so, unfortunately, normal citizens and business have been left behind - exposed to people reading their email messages, and (in the absence of other security measures) potentially also receiving fake or manipulated messages.

Such proven privacy-friendly technology should not go to waste. This project aims to fix encryption's usability problem for organizations and their members through using something called a certificate authority. This can be an organizations administrator for example, which already handles and manages most of the communication going on inside and out. The same goes for encryption: technically complex tasks like cryptographic key creation and handling is automated and authentication of each others encryption keys and signatures is handled by the certificate authority. Just like they rely on central management for other administrative tasks, organization members can be sure encryption is handled as they securely and privately email each other.

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This project was funded through the NGI0 PET Fund, a fund established by NLnet with financial support from the European Commission's Next Generation Internet programme, under the aegis of DG Communications Networks, Content and Technology under grant agreement No 825310.