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What the Hack Is a Dead Man’s Switch?

  |  Rachel Bronstein

If you want to remember the concept behind dead man’s switch, just think of legendary character actor Joe Morton.

Weirdly, Morton starred in two ’90s blockbusters which each had depictions of the idea: In Terminator 2: Judgment Day, he plays the scientist who is fatally wounded in a shootout and rigs explosives to detonate the second his hand releases a trigger (allowing heroes Sarah, John and the Terminator to escape.) In Speed, he’s Keanu Reeves’ boss trying to help get passengers off a bus that has been loaded with explosives set to detonate if the bus drops below 50 mph.

Even if Morton doesn’t ring a bell, there’s more than a good chance that if you’ve been to the movies in the last, say, 50 years, you’ve seen a dead man’s switch in action. It’s an enduring cliche of Hollywood thrillers. Just think about all the times you’ve seen a character wearing an explosive vest and holding his thumb on the trigger, barking demands or he’ll blow the place up. Or a villain threatens to release incriminating files should they meet an untimely demise. These threats are all dead man’s switches. It’s a good name, right?

dead man's switch

noun \ded mans swɪtʃ\

a switch designed to be activated or deactivated should the human operator become incapacitated

Think of it as a type of insurance policy in the case of, well, death (or your incapacitation): A system designed to require constant human intervention, set at a time interval (every hour, once a week, once a month, whatever), that should it not be met, triggers some kind of event.

Here’s another example, but from real life: In the New York City subway, train operators move the train by pressing down on a metal arm; if for whatever reason the operator lets go of the control, the train’s emergency brakes will engage, as was the case when a G train operator suffered a fatal heart attack in 2010.

We now live a more than significant portion of our lives online, with our data traipsing around god knows how many sites and databases. And as morbid as it sounds, have you thought about how your loved ones will be able to access your accounts (social, bank, whatever) in the unfortunate inevitability that you uh… leave this Earth? Or what if you’re injured and are physically incapable of using your devices? Then what?

Justin Cappos, an associate professor at New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering and a cybersecurity expert, puts it well: “There have been a lot of cases where someone passes away and all their digital assets—their emails, logins to their accounts—goes away. And that’s something that can be somewhat problematic for next of kin in many cases. Because maybe you don’t know how to get into various bank accounts,” Cappos said. “You may want a way that, if you passed away, that your digital assets could be turned over much like your physical assets would be to some other party.”

That’s where software that uses dead man’s switch logic come in: something like Dashlane’s Emergency feature, which allows you to designate other Dashlane users who can request access to your passwords should they need it (aka should you shuffle off this mortal coil).

There’s more than a good chance that if you’ve been to the movies in the last, say, 50 years, you’ve seen a dead man’s switch in action.

In the event this person needs to access your data, they can request it, which sends a notification to you. If you don’t respond to that notification by a time period you previously designated (e.g., two days), they would then be given access to your data. Your very own dead man’s switch! It won’t kill you, because you’re already dead! (And you can control how much of your data is shared with your emergency contact—all of it, just some of it, it’s up to you.)

But it’s not just death or harm to consider, Cappos says. “What if I’m imprisoned or something like that happened for an extended period of time? What if I’m detained by the police? Or if I’m in a country where I have to worry about the government spying on me?” Set that switch! Since most of us spending way too much of our lives online are still alive, there aren’t a ton, or even consistent ways to make sure your data gets to the people who might need it.

Twitter, for example, won’t allow anyone to access your account in the event you are unable to login. And only with legal proof of your relationship can someone authorized to act on your behalf request to have your account deleted. Facebook, meanwhile, has a legacy contact feature, and Google allows up to 10 people into your email using its inactive account manager.

But if all your login credentials and data are saved in one place? Then that circumvents all the potential headaches you could run into with disparate policies on accessing your data following death or an unfortunate event.

“If there’s one place I want to have a dead man’s switch, it’s my password manager,” says Cappos.

Do as Joe Morton did in the ’90s, and have a plan.

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