Why you need a Dead Man’s Switch

A locked smartphone

Right off the top here, I must note that the term “dead man’s switch” is archaic, so for the rest of this post I’ll refer to it as “operator presence control,” or OPC.

The concept of an OPC is quite old and usually relates to machinery. Let’s use the example of a train. If the driver of a train is incapacitated for any reason, they are no longer able to maintain the state of the OPC. The train should come to a safe stop, and an emergency notification should go out to the rest of the network to warn everyone that there is a stationary train on the tracks so that the passengers can be rescued as soon as possible.

Bringing it closer to the tech industry, a corporation can’t entrust all its secrets to one person. Administrator passwords and other secrets should be in a secure location that is accessible to at least two trusted individuals. The same goes for processes, documentation, and so on. This is a fundamental tenet of business continuity, of which disaster recovery planning is a small part. No single person in your organization should hold any secrets that affect the operation of the organization. If something happens to that person, the organization would be placed at a severe disadvantage, and might even be forced out of business.

In the year 2021 you need an OPC not just for your organization, but for your life as well. The amount of information that only you have access to is more than you think. Not just passwords to accounts, but also little pieces of information, including how certain tasks are done. Things that only you perform periodically, whether at work or at home. You hold a wealth of knowledge that should be shared so that when something happens to you, whether it be incapacitation, death, or winning the lottery, that information can be accessed by someone else.

Speaking for myself, I use 1Password for Families, and inside there I keep a list of instructions for my spouse should something happen to me. This list includes instructions on how to destroy my hard drives, and whether any of the data can be shared with colleagues or customers before that happens. I also include things like my smartphone PIN, email passwords, Twitter accounts, domain registrar information, Backblaze credentials, and bank account information.

I also use an online service which sends an email to my spouse if I haven’t checked in for a number of days. This email then explains how to find the instructions in 1Password.

Of course, if something happens to both my spouse and me at the same time, then it’s just our pets who need to be looked after. One of our friends has a key to our home for such a scenario.

If this post has you worried because you don’t know what your secrets might be, my advice is to take note of the things you do on a monthly basis and see how much of that relies on secrets only known to you. For example, last month I realized that one of my companies has a process for running invoices which is fairly well documented, however there is a certain failure event which only I knew about, and I had not documented how to deal with it until last week.

Please get your life in order. Figure out where all your paperwork is. Make digital copies of the important things and store them in a digital vault like 1Password. Get a will. Get a living will too if the country you live in allows that. Make sure there’s someone you trust who can get that information if you’re unable to. Life is shorter than you think.

Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo by Franck on Unsplash

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