How to prepare to join the Internet of the dead

In January 2015, security researcher and beloved, prolific geek Michael "Hackerjoe" Hamelin died in a head-on collision that also hospitalized his widow, Beth Hamelin.

Hackerjoe had not done anything to prepare for his unexpected death, and he had an exceptionally complex tangle of IT systems and obligations that no one else was prepared to run -- or even rescue.

As the widowed Beth Hamelin recovered from her own injuries, she was faced with the task of untangling Michael Hamelin's affairs, which ranged from the data needed to pay the household bills to the crypto-keys to access the family photographs and archives, to the authentication tokens and knowledge necessary to gracefully wind down the many hosting/IT businesses he ran without leaving his customers in the lurch.

Andrew Kalat -- a close friend of the Hamelins and an IT expert himself -- stepped in to help, booting Hamelin's systems with "crash-carts," begging companies like Apple, Facebook, Twitter and Goolge to let him recover Hamelin's data, and trying (unsuccessfully) to recover the keys to unlock the Hamelin family's personal memories. As of the time of the talk, all of the Hamelins' photos were considered unrecoverable.

Kalat's talk is a brilliant example of the premise that "we can't make back doors than only good guys can get through." When Hamelin hardened his systems against the attackers who might target him or his customers, he also hardened it against his loved ones.

I wrote about the "Internet of the Dead" in 2012, when my good friend Erik "Possum Man" Stewart, also a prolific and eclectic hacker, died unexpectedly in his sleep and I tried to help his family rescue a little of his digital legacy.

That incident prompted me to create my own digital death plan, which, now that I think of it, is woefully out of date, and, having seen Kalat's presentation, I realize is also inadequate.

I like Kalat's proposal that once a year, couples should switch household roles, each paying the bills and taking care of the paperwork the other deals with, just to "stress test" your family's preparedness for these terrible, unexpected calamities -- to make your family a system that fails well, as well as working well.

Most hackers have a massive digital footprint: social media, servers at co-location sites, servers at home, overly-complicated IT infrastructure, and various other IT gear connected in crazy ways. What happens when one of us suddenly dies? How do our loved ones pick up the pieces, figure out all of our random IT crap that we’ve setup, and move forward? This talk explores the challenges, opportunities, and lessons learned as I aided in figure out the IT gear after the passing of a dear friend to the hacking community, HackerJoe, aka Michael Hamelin. I will share details of the challenges Michael’s widow and I faced, how we overcame them, and advice to better prepare your loved ones if you were to suddenly shake off the mortal coil…

Online No One Knows You're Dead [Andrew Kalat/Internet Archive]

Online, No One Knows You’re Dead [Andrew Kalat/Shmoocon]

(via Shmoocon 2016)

Notable Replies

  1. My plan is to simply not care after I'm dead. She has the passwords to the banking, not much else matters.

  2. I'm sure your partner will be more than thrilled left dealing with everyone wondering why you've not spoken to X, paid Y or attended Z over the course of several months, whilst simultaneously grieving her loss.

    Just because you're dead and don't care, it doesn't mean you shouldn't think about people you care about whilst you still can.

  3. aeon says:

    We have joint bank accounts which we both use for both incoming wages and outgoings. If we die together the bank will turn over the details to our children when they're adults, in the meantime the executors will look after them. Family photos are on a NAS which we all have access to. Social media contacts overlap sufficiently that no-one is going to be out of the loop when we croak.

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