This is a sort of a fun “writing prompt” idea post more than anything else…
If a Tweet Falls in the Forest but the Tweeter is Dead… Does This Analogy Make Any Sense?
As I was attempting to fall asleep on the rug for a post-lunch, post-coffee, pre-afternoon-work nap I began thinking about the feasibility of someone getting access to my digital output after my death. Clarifying: I thought that in general I’d want someone to be able to access this1. In the same way an individual who wrote lots of journals and kept sketchbooks often has those books perused after death by family, friends (and maybe the general public if that individual was of any interest to humanity at large) presently, many people create heaps of digital artifacts during their lifetime in addition to the physical ones - and folks might be interested in enjoying these artifacts (*if you’re freaking out about privacy right now, see below)
There is the stuff that’s stored on various apps’ servers (tweets, facebook posts, livejournal entries, etc.) which would be as visible after death as during the user’s life. We see this all the time on the facebook walls of dead modern humans. But what about the stuff that’s not managed by a third party like facebook? Text files on one’s computer, self-managed websites, the contents of the “Notes” app on a smartphone… These seem roughly as private as an artist’s sketchbook that you might see on display at an art museum. Yet, upon the user’s death it might be nearly impossible to access them or even know what there is to access.
Take this site, for example. It’s hosted on a virtual server I own, with DNS records pointing to a domain that I own. I clearly want this site to be seen by the general public - as I’m hosting it for all the world to see - and there’s no indication to be found that I’d want it to come down after my demise. However, if I stopped paying the various hosting bills the server would be decommissioned and the domain would be re-sold to some subsequent
A non-technical interested party who wanted to keep the site online for me would have a hard time doing so without me leaving them some information.
Cracking The Dead
Here’s a quick, not-well-thought-out way someone might accomplish the above: Using this site’s URL, find out the IP where the files are hosted. Once the server is identified, either find the owner of the server and somehow implore them to share some sort of access, or break in by force and gather up all the resources necessary to maintain future hosting.
The latter is what interested me. I started to imagine a consultancy of ethical hackers who could be contracted to recon and break into all of the recently departed’s digital properties. Computers, servers, crypto wallets, mobile devices. I fantasized that this would become the norm as more of our lives and creative output moves to digitized formats. Just like estate managers clear out and catalog earthly possessions today (I’m assuming this happens, for the sake of comparison and fun), it would be a fact of life (and death) in the future that a team of infosec weirdos would be sicced on your virtual possessions after your expiration.
What would these people be like? What would they find, and would they hide especially juicy stuff to sell on a dark web blacker-than-black market? There seem to be all sorts of interesting avenues for speculative fiction there.
A Thought Regarding Privacy
I’m not sure how I feel about the right to snoop in dead loved-ones’ digital lives. Parallels between the physical and virtual worlds don’t always hold up, but usually provide a good starting point, so let’s start there.
Artists’ sketchbooks and writers’ journals are often exhibited by the departed’s estate. I would imagine that sometimes this invasion is explicitly prohibited or allowed by the creator in a legal will, but maybe sometimes it isn’t specified and is left up to the family to decide (let’s assume the latter is always true, for the sake of argument). As a family member coming across a journal on a shelf you’d likely weigh the value of sharing it vs your instinct to keep it secret. Maybe you’d open it up and peek around a little to help you decide. Maybe that’s already too far and you should have worn a blindfold and swept the whole bookshelf into a black garbage bag.
What about a locked box or a safe? That feels like something the owner wanted kept secret, or at least secure. The distinction isn’t necessarily clear, but it’s an important one! There are at least two kinds of stored-in-a-safe things:
- valuable but not secret: As in, “Hello everyone, we all know I have a lot of cash. I tell you this, but you cannot get it because it’s in my safe”
- secret but not valuable: As in, “Hello everyone, you don’t know that there’s a drawing I did of some cartoon boobies in my safe. Mwuahahaha”
- ok there’s a third: valuable and secret: “Hello everyone, you don’t know whether or not I have a huge chunk of gold in my safe” (he does)
Digital property is similar. Imagine a non-password-protected laptop with a file on the desktop called
some ideas.txt. It seems reasonable that this file is analogous to the journal on the shelf. There’s nothing to indicate the creator wanted it kept secure (except for the lock on the front door of the house, which is another complicated matter… are invited and/or expected guests to the home also invited and/or expected to open the laptop and read everything?).
Once a login password gets involved it starts to get more confusing. Is this like a combination-lock safe now? Are they just keeping valuables secure from thieves, or are they keeping information-based secrets away from the eyes of anyone who might see them? Once someone is dead, are their rights to privacy extinguished or at least rendered incoherent? What about after a few generations of kin die? What about in 20,000 years? Maybe those cave-painters didn’t want anyone to see their images. Do we care?
Today we have an advantage that the billions of dead people with secrets didn’t have before us.
It is possible to encrypt some information such that nobody in the world can ever get at it but you (torture methods notwithstanding). Upon coming across a folder encrypted in this way, you can safely assume the creator does not ever want you to see what is inside. That’s clean and nice. …For now. Quantum computers might change that. Also, not everyone has the wherewithal to leverage strong encryption (you tried your hardest, Phil!)
I’m just going to end this post abruptly now. Now that about two hours have passed since I started my pre-work nap (hours I somehow spent thinking about and writing this) I can get back to work!