Why You Need a Digital ‘Dead Man’s Switch’
No one likes to contemplate their own mortality or the mess that you’re potentially leaving behind. But we’re all going to die someday, and for some of us, death is going to be an unexpected event. You’d like to think you’ll have some measure of control over your demise and that you’ll be able to put your affairs in order, but you might not get that chance, and it will impact everyone around you. From a partner who can’t log into your accounts to that trove of NSFW content you’d rather your loved ones never find out about, there’s always unfinished business in the wake of an unexpected death.
If you want to make things easier for the people you care about and protect your legacy, it’s time to set up a digital “dead man’s switch.” The good news is, this is actually pretty easy to do.
What is a dead man’s switch?
Put simply, a dead man’s switch is a mechanism-physical or digital – that triggers if you’re not around to stop it. Trains used to be equipped with these – if an engineer wasn’t physically present to drive the train, it would automatically slow to a stop. In some Hollywood action movies, terrorists and criminals use these with bombs – they press a button, and if they stop pressing it, the bomb goes off, so the good guys can’t just kill them without killing everyone.
Setting up a digital dead man’s switch for yourself is pretty easy. Web sites like Dead Man’s Switch and Dead Man Tracker exist where you can set up a simple one (for free, even!) that will send out an email you compose in advance. These services will send you an email with a link on a regular basis; if you click the link, nothing happens. If you don’t, the switch is triggered, and the content you set up in advance is sent out to your recipients.
You can also use Google’s Inactive Account Manager service in a similar way, setting up a list of trusted contacts who can receive an email you compose once Google determines your account is inactive. You can also decide what data they will get access to, so you can grant someone access to your inbox but not your, um, search history (for example).
For the purposes of managing your unexpected demise, there probably won’t be any bombs or trains involved. But a digital dead man’s switch has a lot of uses.
Did you know that it’s estimated that about 3% of all the deaths in the U.S. result in an unclaimed body? If you suffered an unexpected accident in this remote, online world, who would know? Setting up a digital dead man’s switch with a frequent check-in (say, daily) means your recipients can be alerted that something’s happened to you very quickly. If nothing else, it can prompt someone to do a wellness check on you and possibly bring in help when you can’t do it yourself.
You can also use a dead man’s switch to ensure that your pets are cared for if something terrible were to happen. It’s bad enough imagining that you could suffer an accident that isn’t noticed for days (or longer), but imagining your pets suffering as well just makes the whole concept infinitely worse.
Passwords and financials
One of the most powerful uses of a digital dead man’s switch is ensuring that someone has access to your financial and online assets after you’re gone. Think about it: If you handle the banking in your family, would your partner be able to access accounts and maintain control over everything if you’re gone? Or would they have to lawyer up and spend weeks or months fighting for that access? An encrypted email arriving via dead man’s switch can ensure they have all the information they need in one timely place, and this is a lot safer than a piece of paper on your desk and a lot more convenient and accessible than a piece of paper in a safe deposit box.
Some password managers have similar services that might be worth looking into. 1Password, for example, offers the Emergency Kit, which is a secure PDF containing all the information someone will need to gain control over your online accounts. Since this doesn’t necessarily include a message option, it is a bit more bare-bones than a dead man’s switch, but it offers the same basic functionality in terms of keeping your loved ones in control.
A final but meaningful reason for a digital dead man’s switch? Forget money, and make sure your Facebook friends know that you died. You can leave a final message for your loved ones and real friends. Something you can spend some time on and be thoughtful about—the type of message that says everything we don’t normally say in everyday life.
Alternatively, you could send an email to a buddy instructing them to delete your porn folder or go the extra step in the dead man’s switch business with something like a physical “kill cord” for your laptop that will literally cause your laptop to self-destruct if you don’t respond to a dead man’s switch prompt on a regular basis. While these are intended to protect you from the privacy and data impact of a physical theft, they can also be used to burn it all down if you’re not there to hide all your unsavory files and weird searches.
No one wants to plan their own death. But a little planning with a dead man’s switch could save everyone in your life a lot of trouble—and maybe offer some reputation insurance at the same time.