Mental Break

Dead Man's Switch: CC Me From The Other Side

A few weeks ago, NPR's Yuki Noguchi filed a story for All Things Considered on what happens to someone's online legacy — their emails, passwords, social networking profiles, etc — when they die. The story generated a number of comments on NPR.org as well as on Facebook, but one particular comment really got my attention.

I have an automated system set up with sort of a "dead man's switch" which will give trusted individuals access to my email accounts, web servers, etc. should I be incommunicado for so long as to suggest that I am probably dead.
I am a terrible nerd.

The self-proclaimed nerd in question is Tony Gies, a 20-year-old audio engineer and music producer in Omaha, Nebraska. Curious to learn more about his "dead man's switch" and why he set it up, I started chatting with him on Facebook.

"I run a few websites, and operate a small 'netlabel' — Internet-based record label — in addition to collaborating on musical projects with friends over the Internet," Gies explained. "If I died or became incapacitated for a long time, that could be devastating to the musicians I work with and the people who use the websites I run. Work in progress could be lost forever, my sites could go offline, my netlabel would fall apart."

Gies said that he decided to set up the switch after a near-death experience. "I concocted the idea one day when I was almost hit by a car. A program running on a couple of my servers supervises my online presence in various ways. It notices if I post on Facebook, Twitter, my blog, etc., log into any of my servers, send an e-mail, etc. Things like that. If it becomes apparent that I haven't been around in quite some time, it 'unlocks' and a trusted individual can activate it. When it is activated, various trusted individuals will be sent e-mails explaining the situation and be granted access to my accounts."

For Gies, this isn't just an academic exercise to come up with a posthumous hack, he says he's got the legal paperwork to back it up. "I still have provisions in a living will for immediate family members to be granted access to certain things. I just don't feel like I can rely on my family or whoever takes care of my affairs in the event of my death to get in contact with the considerable number of people who might need access to certain information and unfinished work upon my death. I have also carefully selected people who I trust not to turn my entire enterprise into some big sappy memorial Web site."

I had to ask, though - aren't there any possible circumstances that don't entail being dead, yet might still take him offline for an extended period of time, thus accidentally triggering the switch?

"I suppose if I were in a coma or held in a secret CIA prison and nobody thought to disarm it, it could activate," he replied. "But if I'm out of commission for that long, it might as well.

"I realize that this all makes me sound completely insane," Gies added. "To be honest, I built the system partly just to see if I could, for my own amusement, but it will serve a vital role in a scenario where I have unfinished business that other people need to take care of."

I, for one, don't think Gies is insane. I've wondered if I should have some type of posthumous persona management plan in place for myself. I've got a number of online responsibilities that would need to continue in my absence, including an email discussion group I founded almost 15 years ago, and I'm sure my friends and family would come together around my blog, Twitter account and Facebook page if I were ever hit by a bus or killed in a freak accident. (Has anyone died from blathering on too much on Twitter?)

But would I take my chance with an automated system as Gies has? Probably not. If you were really committed to the idea, though, you could get really creative with it — having it upload a goodbye video to YouTube, perhaps post an 140-character valedictory to Twitter.

Looks like I'm dead. Can't reply 2 ur @ tweets any more - kthanxbai!

Then again, perhaps not.

What about you? Would you want your own dead man's switch? Whom would you want it to contact, and what would you want it to say?