January 10, 2007
Email from beyond the grave

I've read before about services like this, mostly in the context of storing one's various account passwords in a single place that will be convenient for family members to access after one's demise. I think I know how to get to most of Tiffany's stuff, but I'm fairly sure she doesn't know how to get to most of mine - this blog, to provide one moderately silly example. I've given something like this some thought, because if nothing else just enumerating all of the things one accesses online or on one's computer has value.

The service, called Deathswitch, ensures that critical personal information will survive, even when a person dies unexpectedly, company founder David Eagleman said.

After Deathswitch subscribers pass on, the company sends e-mail to intended recipients -- anything from computer passwords or a love note to "the last word in an argument," he said.

The service is $19.95 per year -- only while the subscriber is alive, of course.


Deathswitch.com is an automated system that prompts subscribers for their password on a regular schedule to make sure they're still alive. Subscribers typically ask to be prompted every two weeks.

When a subscriber doesn't respond, the system goes into "worry mode," sending more frequent prompts. A subscriber has the option of providing Deathswitch with a secondary e-mail address and leaving a friend's e-mail address for backup.

If a subscriber fails to respond for a predetermined period of time, Deathswitch assumes that he or she has died and begins sending out e-mail messages, which can contain documents, images and videos.

If a subscriber will be without e-mail access for a long time, he or she can activate the "vacation mode" for any length of time, Eagleman said.


An advantage of Deathswitch over, say, keeping stored information on a CD in a vault, is that subscribers can easily update information, Eagleman said.

All information on Deathswitch is encrypted for security.

Eagleman sees his service as a way of "bridging mortality."

While some might find the idea creepy, he doesn't.

"It would be so interesting to receive e-mail from someone who passed away," he said, adding. "I don't think there's any honor in being silent in death."

It's no creepier than normal estate planning, if you ask me. We just did some of that, so I'm pretty comfortable with the concept. Though I do admit, as Houstonist noted in this Nature article on the same service, that has some potential for the slightly macabre.

With time, people began to push death switches further. Instead of confessing their death in the e-mails, they pretended they were not dead. Using auto-responder algorithms that cleverly analysed incoming messages, a death switch could generate apologetic excuses to turn down invitations, to send congratulations on a life event, and to claim to be looking forward to a chance to see them again sometime soon.

I just finished configuring my Google calendar to remind me about various people's birthdays and anniversaries. It's a short step from there to having an email sent automatically on the dates in question. Since I've got the calendar items set for annual recurrence ad infinitum, well, you can see the possibilities.

HouStoned has some fun with this. It's pretty easy to do.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 10, 2007 to Technology, science, and math