Are True Names in Earthsea digital encryption keys?

I’ve recently reread Earthsea, a classic fantasy novel by Ursula LeGuin. The novel is set in a magic world and tracks the progress of Ged, a mage with unprecedented powers, from his childhood to adulthood. Keeping in mind an often cited quote by another classic writer, Arthur C Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, I decided to peel back the curtain of magic and imagine what practical inventions may stand behind the magical concepts of the Earthsea world. I’m most interested in the concept of true names. I will show how true names could relate to modern day digital encryption – with a mage’s true name being his personal digital certificate.

Some of the technology behind the magic in the book is trivially easy to see. For example, when Ged applied a spell to a brackish spring on a tiny sea island, it means he’s installed a filtration system. Water desalination was a plausible alternative, but, since it is more complex and bulky (using modern technology), it would be less likely.

There are many cases when figuring out the exact technical solution is impractical because it is described in magical terms. Now, any technology would look like magic to people who don’t understand it. They would simply have no concepts to explain it and wouldn’t know where to look for clues. So naturally people in medievalist societies where magic fantasies are usually set can’t provide adequate descriptions of advanced technology they mistake for magic. Hence the readers lack cues to accurately translate the magic to the modern day technical concepts. This is certainly by design.

With this, let’s get to true names, the most creative and crucially important device in this book. Many entities in the Earthsea universe have secret true names, which have special magic meaning. Here’s what we know about true names:

  • Humans, other live beings and geographical objects (seas and islands) have true names.
  • Each human has a unique true name.
  • True name is permanent and can’t be changed.
  • Animals have one true name for the whole specie.
  • Ged’s true name was assigned to him by a mage when he was near puberty. He didn’t have a true name before that. Many other people aged from 14 and up also have true names. No human person other than child Ged is specifically described as having no true name.
  • True names can be used by beings with magical powers (human mages and dragons) to control behavior of the name bearer

What we don’t know:

  • Do human-made objects (such as houses and boats) have true names? We know that spells are routinely applied to them, but it’s not clear if such spells require knowing the true name of the object.
  • Do all humans get their true names assigned by mages in their teen years? There is not enough information is Earthsea to draw conclusions (and I didn’t read sequels to Earthsea).

Based on what we know, true names must mean different things for humans, animals and inanimate objects. This would explain the fact that human true names are individual, but animals of the same specie share the same true name. We also know that there are several kinds of magic, taught by different Master Mages. It stands to reason that if true names unlock different kinds of magic, then the true names themselves may be of different types. Let’s start with animals, which seem to be the easiest case. For animals, the logical true name would be a DNA signature. The magic it enables is, then, biotech-based.

For humans, we could also go with personally targeted bio. One example of this is found in Vernor Vinge’s book Rainbows End. The book is mostly about near term advanced digital technology and augmented reality. At one point Alice Gu is incapacitated by a virus targeted to her individually. The creation of the virus required collection of her DNA sample.

There are other ways to individually target humans. The simplest one is an identifier issued by a competent authority, something like a Social Security Number in US. And it doesn’t have to be a number – it could be just a name. After all, only a few years after Earthsea, Ursula LeGuin uses this idea in her book Dispossessed – individual names are unique and assigned on planet-wide basis.

In this case, determining someone’s true name would be roughly equivalent to modern day identity theft. We know that identity theft enables the thief to take over the victim’s accounts, disrupting his ability to communicate and access to finances. It can be really demoralizing, which matches the effect of an adversary knowing your true name (rendering you unable to defend yourself). For this to work, the target has to be quite advanced and sophisticated: medieval subsistence farmers won’t suffer much from identity theft, because they don’t bank or use Skype. From the book, it’s not clear whether revealing of the true name is equally damaging to different people. We know that it has debilitating effect on mages, but they are a unique cast living by special rules. We have to assume that they are the super-sophisticated hi-tech elite of the Earthsea, so they could indeed suffer from identity theft.

Another possibility is a breach of anonymity. In one of the first Sci-Fi books of the digital era, True Names, Vernor Vinge shows how cyberspace character is in grave danger if his real world identity is exposed. Thus, true name is simply the real name in the physical world. In the True Names, the danger comes from the government, which is able to apply its heavy hand to coerce desired behavior in cyberspace. But “we know where you live” has also been an effective threat from non-government actors, such as mafia, KKK and jihadists. In the Internet era this threat has increased in poignancy and acquired a new name: doxing.

Finally, here’s the tantalizing possibility: true name could be a person’s private encryption key. Such a key is necessary to create digital signatures proving authenticity of communications. And it must be kept secret, otherwise an attacker could impersonate the victim. Again, this will only work against hi-tech targets dependent on electronic gadgets and communication services. If you are a mage deploying an array of electronic devices, sensors, weapons and so on, a lost private key means that your adversary can now impersonate you in all digital communications. He can issue commands that will appear to be coming from you. He can control all of your devices and turn your weapons against you, which must spell quick and immediate defeat. The threat is made more severe by the fact that in the Earthsea, the key (true name) can’t be changed. We can see the impact of this oversight in the book, where once someone’s true name is known, that person (or dragon) remains in danger forever. An ability to change keys is a fundamental tenet of modern crypto systems: if keys are stolen, changing the keys (think passwords) allows a quick closing of the security breach. Changing keys is so important that some security experts advise against biometric security (e.g. fingerprints or retina scans) because the secrets are unchangeable. Once your fingerprints make it into the wrong hands, you are as helpless as a wizard of Earthsea whose true name has been revealed.

If true names can be understood in terms of  digital encryption, then a book on the current FBI vs Apple encryption fight was written half a century ago.


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