Tuesday, March 15, 2011

flipping the virtual death switch

a dead man's switch is a device on things like trains and tractors that the operator must hold down to keep the engine running. your lawn mower probably has one. should the operator drop dead, the switch is flipped and the engine stops, preventing further death caused by out-of-control steel.

david eagleman heard about these and got to wondering, what happens to our virtual selves when we die? surely we should install some sort of dead man's switch on our emails, facebook, twitter, etc, so that after we've departed, our online avatars can tie off loose ends and conclude our business for us? and so david first wrote a very short story called Death Switch in his charming and thought-provoking book, Sum, and started a website called deathswitch. i first heard him on cbc's wiretap (you can hear another Sum story in this episode), though i had forgotten about that by the time i pitched a deathswitch article to metro canada, and so was pleased to chase my own tale back to eagleman.

he's not only a writer and online entrepreneur, he's also a neuroscientist in texas. that's actually his main job, but he has brilliant ideas at the same pace as i check my facebook, so he tends to spill over into other worlds. his ted talk on possibilianism offers a new position on the atheist-vs-religious debates of recent years.

needless to say, i was looking forward to our brief chat last week. here's the resulting, and all too short, article for metro.

Post-mortem protection for passwords and private info

By Jon Tattrie
For Metro Canada

Do you ever wonder what happens to your virtual self after you die? In an online world where passwords to vast amounts of critical workplace information are stored only in one person’s head, there’s a real risk your posthumous avatar will fall as silent as your fleshly existence after the last whistle blows.

Enter Deathswitch.com, the website that bills itself as “information insurance.” “Don’t die with secrets that need to be free,” it warns.

A free basic version or an inexpensive premium version lets you load up Deathswitch.com with your passwords, financial information and even personal secrets. The website will email you at regular intervals to check you’re still alive. When you stop responding after a pre-determined period of time, it flips the Deathswitch and sends your information to your selected recipients. Your colleagues can then carry on in your absence.

Keith Murphy, CEO of the Ottawa-based information security firm Defence Intelligence, says many companies have no posthumous plans for protecting employee secrets and so lose them to an online purgatory, but he cautions against storing too much information on one external website.

“The basics of security is you would never want a single point of failure,” he says.

Murphy suggests storing the actual information elsewhere – perhaps in a locked drawer – and using a Deathswitch-style email to tell colleagues how to locate it. You could also send password hints to someone who could decode them.

David Eagleman is the brains behind Deathswitch.com, but the neuroscientist at Texas’s Baylor College of Medicine is not your usual dot.com geek. He’s also the best-selling author of Sum (which contains the short story that birthed Deathswitch.com) and has given a TED talk on possibilianism, his answer to the theism versus atheism debate. Reached on his cellphone in Richmond, Virginia, he says he started Deathswitch.com in 2006.
It uses high-level security encryption that would thwart any hacker, and even he doesn’t know what’s stored on its servers, Eagleman says. 

As most people use the free version, it only generates enough money to pay its bills. “It’s almost entirely a philosophical exercise” for him, he says. “I did it because it’s a tool that should exist in the world.”

He says the Deathswitch emails are good reminders to keep your work and personal affairs in order and take precautions to ensure that when you die, your virtual self can stick around long enough to pass on the critical information.

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