I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what happens when we die.
Recently, a friend of my wife’s died very suddenly and unexpectedly. She was not, as far as anyone knows, ill in any serious way. Nor, again, as far as anyone knows, did she have any medical condition that might lead one to expect a sudden death. It was a very shocking surprise.
Her husband, who is also a friend of ours, was suddenly responsible for all the things she had been taking care of, including paying all the bills on-line. Naturally, she had her email linked to all that, but, as it turns out, he didn’t have all her email passwords, because, well, who would? I certainly don’t have all my wife’s passwords memorized, if I even know them. Not that she keeps secrets from me, but, who can think of every system and password? And, I have my own passwords to keep track of, which, thanks to my work, are many and not all chosen by me. Our friends didn’t have much more in the way of “digital assets”, really, beyond email, their phones, and their Facebook account. But, my wife and I have several websites between us. Obviously, I have this one and my other, more personal site, JKHoffman.com. She has her business website, The Organizing Decorator. And, then there are the sites I’m still developing, FindMyPhorographer.com, FindMyDecorator.com and LookingForLawyers.com Although those are still under development, we hope that they will one day be thriving businesses that will continue even if one of us were to die.
Well, for the simple passing on of information, there are a lot of methods. There’s the tried-and-true method of simply having the information, like a list of passwords for assorted systems, in a sealed envelope with instructions for delivery after a certain condition or date. I’ve actually had that kind of thing with employers when I was at small companies. Just a sealed envelope in a fire safe with the administrator password and other relevant details. But, this relies on someone coming to find it or knowing where to look. Also, there’s not as much control over who gets it, even if that envelope is left with someone trustworthy, like a lawyer.
Another method, that’s the higher-tech equivalent of this, is the software-based “Dead Man’s Switch”, which I wrote about back in 2009. In addition to the resources there, now there is also the service Deadman. The idea is all the same and based on an old idea from the train industry. The so-called “dead man’s switch” is a device that someone must actively keep engaged or the train, or other piece of machinery, will shut off. Here the “dead man’s switch” is just something that has to be reset by a certain time or some series of events will occur, like sending an email to one or more people with important information in it. I used to use a bit of freeware based on this called “DMS”, which was, obviously, an abbreviation. The software did, among other things, some encryption to protect vital information from people who might get nosy after my departure from a company, especially if that departure came as a surprise to me. That worked great until I got cancer and was suddenly hospitalized and unable to reset the timer! Whoops! The creator is no longer supporting the software, and it has some obvious dangers, but you can still download it here. There is a decryption tool, but, it may be best not to use that at all. Also, I’m not entirely sure how well it will work on Windows 7 or newer machines. It’s pretty old.
If you’re a WordPress blogger, you can try the Next of Kin plugin, which sends out an email per your configuration if you don’t log into your blog in a certain amount of time. It hasn’t been updated too recently, but it is more up-to-date than the DMS software and runs on what is hopefully a more reliable system than your desktop, at least in the long-run.
(Of course, if you’re a spy or a whistle-blower of some kind, these services and software packages have other uses!)
So, what might one need to pass on to the living once we have passed?
Besides the previously mentioned email passwords and banking access passwords, there may be website and web hosting accounts and passwords, social media accounts and passwords like Twitter and Facebook, PINs for your ATM, credit cards and home alarm, device passwords for phones, laptops and desktops, and password storage software, if you use any.
Honestly, this list can go on and on in our connected world. A site called Tuts+ ran a two-part series about this very subject and I highly recommend that if you want to think through all the things that you may need to transfer access to after one’s passing. The first article, Preparing Your Digital Assets For Your Eventual Death, has a lot of food for thought. The author, like me, knew someone who lost their spouse and was confronted with the sudden loss of a spouse, which is what inspired his writing of the articles. However, it took on a much more personal sense of urgency when, after starting the articles, he was diagnosed with a, thankfully, operable brain tumor. And, as a cancer survivor, I can tell you that this is not the first time these issues have been on my mind.
If you have a self-hosted blog, like this one, or another kind of website, you have an additional set of challenges in addition to the normal ones that pretty much everyone faces today in our digital world. First of all, there’s the domain name. Now, you can register that somewhere for an extended period of time. The last I checked, though, ten years is the longest one can pre-pay for that service. Most registrars have an auto-renew feature, as long as you have a good credit card listed in the payment section. Or, have it linked to a PayPal account that has funds in it. In theory, web-hosting can work in a similar fashion. In fact, the popular and well-known registrar GoDaddy has hosting options as well, so, if this is a real concern, it may be possible to achieve both goals at a single vendor.
But, of course, the question ultimately becomes one of how reliable in the long-term any of these companies are or may be. Do you want to host your content for 100 years after your death? The internet itself hasn’t been around that long yet, so who knows what any of this digital landscape will look like that far into the future? Jeff Reifman talks about these issues in greater depth in the second of his articles at Tuts+, Hosting Your Website After Death. It’s an on-going series and I recommend that you check it out if you have any interest in these topics at all.
Advice from your Uncle Jim:
"I love deadlines. I especially love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by."