Steve Kemp writes about his concerns for what happens to his data after death . Basically everything will go away when bills stop being paid. If you have hosting on a monthly basis (IE a Xen DomU) then when the bank account used for the bill payment is locked (maybe a week after death) the count-down to hosting expiry starts. As noted in Steve’s post it is possible to pay for things in advance, but everything will run out eventually.
One option is to have relatives keep the data online. With hard drives getting bigger all the time it wouldn’t be difficult to backup the web sites for everyone in your family to a USB flash device and then put it online at a suitable place. Of course that relies on having relatives with the skill and interest necessary.
The difficult part is links, if the domain expires then links will be broken. One way of alleviating this would be to host content with Blogger, Livejournal, or other similar services. But then instead of the risk of a domain being lost you have the risk of a hosting company going bankrupt.
It seems to me that the ideal solution would be to have a hosting company take over the web sites of deceased people and put adverts on them to cover the hosting costs. As the amount of money being spent on Internet advertising will only increase while the costs of hosting steadily go down it seems that collecting a lot of content for advertising purposes would be a good business model. If the web sites of dead people are profitable then they will remain online.
It wouldn’t be technically difficult to extract the data from a blog server such as WordPress (either from a database dump or crawling the web site), change the intra-site links to point to a different domain name, and then put it online as static content with adverts. If a single company (such as Google) had a large portion of the market of hosting the web sites of dead people then when someone died and had their web site transferred the links on the other sites maintained by the same company could be automatically adjusted to match. A premium service from such a company could be to manage the domain. If they were in the domain registrar business it would be easy to allow someone to pay for 10 or 20 years after their death. Possibly with a portion of the advertising revenue going towards extending the domain registration. I think that this idea has some business potential, I don’t have the time or energy to implement it myself and my clients are busy on other things so I’m offering it to the world.
Cory Doctorow has written an article for the Guardian about a related issue – how to allow the next of kin to access encrypted data when someone is dead . One obvious point that he missed is the possibility that he might forget his own password, a small injury from a car accident could cause that problem.
It seems strange to me that someone would have a great deal of secret data that needs strong encryption but yet has some value after they are dead. Archives of past correspondence to/from someone who is dead is one category of secret data that is really of little use to anyone unless the deceased was particularly famous. Probably the majority of encrypted data from a dead person would be best wiped.
For the contents of personal computers the best strategy would probably be to start by dividing the data into categories according to the secrecy requirements. Publish the things that aren’t secret, store a lot of data unencrypted (things that are not really secret but you merely don’t want to share them with the world), have a large encrypted partition that will have it’s contents lost when you die, and have a very small encrypted device that has bank passwords and other data that is actually useful for the executors of the will.
One thing that we really need is to have law firms that have greater technical skills. It would be good if the law firms that help people draw up wills could advise them on such issues and act as a repository for such data. It seems to me that the technical skills that are common within law firms are not adequate for the task of guarding secret electronic data for clients.