This is the story of my life: Cory Doctorow and I have the same problem, only he’s actually sat down and thought of a solution while I was busy wasting my life in World of Warcraft.
Anyway, the problem is encryption. Now, for the most part encryption is a solution. I have terabytes of personal data that I would like to remain personal for now. So if my laptop gets stolen or my house gets broken into and someone makes off with the server, I don’t want my personal data ending up as a Torrent (not that anyone would really care, but still…) So, like Doctorow, I’ve encrypted it all using 128 bit AES and a long-ass passphrase that a) I’ve never written down and b) I’ve never told anyone.
Great, but as my wife has asked me on occasion — what the hell happens when I keel over from a heart attack or suffer an injury where I can no longer remember or communicate the password. How is she supposed to access the data? Hmm…good point.
Doctorow actually worked out a fairly elegant solution, though sadly it does involve lawyers.
Finally, I hit on a simple solution: I’d split the passphrase in two, and give half of it to my wife, and the other half to my parents’ lawyer in Toronto. The lawyer is out of reach of a British court order, and my wife’s half of the passphrase is useless without the lawyer’s half (and she’s out of reach of a Canadian court order). If a situation arises that demands that my lawyer get his half to my wife, he can dictate it over the phone, or encrypt it with her public key and email it to her, or just fly to London and give it to her.
As simple as this solution is, it leaves a few loose ends: first, what does my wife do to safeguard her half of the key should she perish with me? The answer is to entrust it to a second attorney in the UK (I can return the favour by sending her key to my lawyer in Toronto). Next, how do I transmit the key to the lawyer? I’ve opted for a written sheet of instructions, including the key, that I will print on my next visit to Canada and physically deliver to the lawyer.
A related issue that Doctorow raises in passing is how we ensure our heirs take care of what we leave behind digitally. As an author, Doctorow raises the issue of a future descendant who intentionally tries to sabotage is literary legacy. With me a bigger risk is the wife deleting my words of wisdom for the ages when she stumbles across the pron collection.