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John’s Dead Man Switch


Some Text From A Grave StoneMaybe I’m a fatalist. Or maybe I’m a realist. Either way, a thought occurred to me the other day. What if I’m crossing the road, run down and killed? Or I’m running across a field and struck by lightning – death being instantaneous. Or maybe I’m going to put a cheque in the bank to find it’s being robbed by a masked gang, overpower them, call the police, deliver the baby of the pregnant woman there and then (there’s always one), generally save the day, but trip on the kerb outside, fall down and break my neck, dead as I hit the ground.

The point is, accidents can happen, I could shuffle off the mortal coil at any point. For me that’s the end of it, but what about my good lady? Sure, she’ll have to deal with the loss, sell the house, cash in the insurance policies and buy a nice beach house somewhere warm. But without knowing the login details to this site she won’t be able to write a post informing the world wide web that I’m dead. She won’t be able to look at all my old emails and realise I’d been living a double life as a bigamist / spy / special forces operative / singer in a church choir / take your pick. She won’t be able to log onto my Windows 2003 server and apply the latest patches, or update Apache on the box John’s Adventures runs on. She won’t even be able to log on to see my credit card statements and wonder why I’d made so many payments to Interflora when I never used to buy her flowers.

In short, my untimely death would leave a lot of loose ends that I doubt I could solve from beyond the grave. Then I came up with a solution – it’s called John’s Dead Man Switch.

The idea is simple. If I don’t browse to a particular web page or click a particular button on my computer every 3 weeks, then an email will magically send itself to my good lady. That email will contain not only all the login details to every site and computer I use, but an explanation of how to use any of these systems that she’ll understand. It’ll have things like a step by step guide to creating a new article here announcing my death, approving comments and so forth. Knowing me the email will start with something like this:

“Hello good wife, you have received this email for one of the following reasons. Either I’m dead, in which case I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m even more sorry to inform you that you’re not allowed to marry someone younger and hunkier than me (unless it’s my brother). Or alternatively I’ve forgotten to press my dead man’s switch and you can delete this email now. Hmmm, now I think about it, if the latter is the case then maybe I should have put that first to spare you the trauma…”

Now the way I see it John’s Dead Man Switch (or JDMS) will consist of a couple of components. First there’ll be a web site that lets me manage my dead man’s switch so I can:

  • Click a link to reset my dead man’s switch and prove I’m alive.
  • Determine the minimum timeout – if I go on holiday for a month I’d want to make the time-before-assumed-death or TBAD a bit longer.
  • Decide on how often an “are you still alive?” email should be sent (if I’m dead I won’t receive it but if I’m alive but forgetful it’ll remind me to click the dead man’s switch).
  • Upload and edit my “Used to be-mail” – strong encryption would be a requirement to ensure nobody else can read the contents even if they break into the site and that the JDMS platform is secure.
  • Download one of the JDMS client applications.

Which brings me onto the JDMS client applications themselves. The client applications will need to support all major operating systems (including the iPhone) and the user interface will consist of a large button that looks something like this:

Potential John's Dead Man Switch Clients

I’m thinking I can either have it scheduled to appear at the intervals I’ve set on the website, run manually as-and-when, or appearing every 2 minutes in case I’m so strung out on coffee that I need reminding that I’m still alive!

Clearly John’s Dead Man Switch needs some further investigation and a full specification fleshing out. At the moment it’s just an idea but, unless someone else has only gone and come up with the idea already, I think I’ll make it my next side project. So what do you think of John’s Dead Man Switch? The next great thing or dead before it begins?!

Posted by

Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

43 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. It is very nice idea. But it reminds me about film “P.S. I love you”. I wonder how it will be very hard to lady to receive such mail after few weeks after death of h`r lover.. Oh god, don’t let it happen..


  2. Thanks Ben! 🙂

    True Vinnsent, it’s a nasty thing to have to think about. But I remember reading about the mother of a soldier who was killed in Iraq and she couldn’t access his Yahoo mail account to get a copy of all the emails he’d sent home because she didn’t know the password. Yahoo couldn’t help her out as it went against their terms of service to give out user passwords. It just made her loss even worse and more frustrating as she’d not kept copies herself.


  3. Quite a very sad story about soldier and his mother. And it is unfortunate that people from Yahoo! did not want to help her.
    Your idea of this program is very interesting and I think that many people would be interested in it. I am only 22 and I still do not plan to leave my loved ones, but anything can happen. So that’s why i will be very pleased to have used it.
    You are very good man, that decided to create it!

    P.S. sorry for my english – it’s a little bit broken 🙂


  4. John: Ha ha, I’m not sure there’s a lot of common functionality there! 😉

    Ian: Ah, but surely you change your passwords regularly so you’d need to keep re-writing the letter, and wasting envelopes. Plus if you’re robbed or the cause of your death was the house being burned down with you in it then the letter will be destroyed. Whereas JDMS is web-based and when you have it running on multiple data centres your final wishes are safe!


  5. John

    This reminds me of a website I read about that was set up by a kooky religious group that sends an email to friends in case the religious person has been taken up into heaven in the “Rapture”.

    There’s a wired article about it here:

    But, truth be told, I’d feel much more secure using software written by you than by a bunch of kooks, so please write it!


    P.S. Gotta admit though, the low tech “passwords in an envelope” solution does sound pretty elegant 🙂


  6. OK, point taken on the risks of the hardcopy letter being stolen.

    Similarly then, isn’t it a bit risky entrusting so many vital passwords, bank account details and what-not to the “safe keeping” of JDMS? It sounds like a bit of a shifty organisation to me 😉

    But then, I suppose and already know *everything* about me, so… count me in 🙂


  7. All joking aside, I think it’s actually a pretty good idea for an application and the problem it addresses is something that’s crossed my mind too. The obvious downside is that I don’t particularly want all my passwords and sensitive information held on one place online somewhere.

    Good to see you’ve made some progress with learning Cocoa too, although those capitals on the button aren’t very Mac-like! 😉 And why the variation in the wording on the buttons; is the implication that Mac users are more decisive?


  8. Neil: Yeah, looks like they had a good idea but fell down with the marketing – any mention of the Rapture is sure to turn non-believers away. They should have kept the message simple and send messages on death or ascension!

    Ian: I was thinking of taking the WordPress model and having either a hosted version or downloading the code yourself and installing it on your own web server. Trust is a big issue of course so I’ll be thinking of ways to encrypt the data so that only the user and recipient will have access to the information. Or I could always use Google App Engine so it’s hosted on Google’s infrastructure (which would have the added bonus of making me learn Python).

    John: True, it’s a single point of failure, and something I’ll be thinking about! Oh, I was trying different phrases – remember it’s only a beta and subject to change! 😉


  9. I was writing this quite elaborate post on how you might be able to solve certain technical difficulties to this problem, and how you could perhaps use WordPress’s scheduled posts, when it hit me that I stumbled upon a WP plugin that does exactly what you are talking about here.

    It’s called Next Of Kin, the plugin you don’t want to install 🙂
    It’s right here:

    It works by monitoring you logging in to WP, so there’s no need for a client application. Sweet isn’t it? Well… maybe…


  10. Awesome! Trust the WordPress community to come up with something like that – they think of everything! 🙂

    I’ll keep on with JDMS for those non-Wordpress users out there (the fools)! 😉


  11. So morbid to think of, but I suppose the same consideration should go to social networking sites like Facebook and myspace. I had a situation like that with Facebook after my cousin died. We wanted to notify her friends, but they couldn’t release her password, so we just asked that they shut down her page. Sad, I know. 🙁


  12. I’ve flirted with a similar idea then I realized of all my loved ones or people I’d trust with my passwords whether I was dead or alive, I’d have to email them a ‘Fzzt for Dummies’ book sized email. More than likely a day or so after I was gone someone would come and unplug all the noisy computers 😉

    In the end I simply created a deadman’s letter where I listed the emails of my favorite online people, figuring that once they received word of my demise they could spread the news to the sites they know me on. I do keep a written log in a firesafe of my more secure passwords and the URL’s to get to important sites (financial stuff).

    Your solution is interesting but I’d be quite worried about a false broadcast!


  13. That’s weird John, because before I read this post I was thinking the exact same thing. What if I die and no one knows how to let my readers know I’ve kicked the bucket so they can stop waiting for my next post? Anyway, send it my way when you’re done. It’s a great idea.


  14. This is something that I have thought about for quite some time. My wife is not technically Savvy and would need instructions to properly shutdown and dispose of the computer equipment that is of no use to her (stuff I use in my business). I think sending all your passwords and other info in an email would not be a good idea, especially if it is a premature notice. You would not need to put all of your info on the site, but could just be a list of a few critical passwords, account logins and where to find the important documents (like your Last-Will-and-Testament). The site could have a two part validation to retrieve the information stored on the server (e.g. a password sent in the email along with a known piece of info the recipient already knows), this would prevent a third party from intercepting the email and gaining access.

    P.S. Love your Background Switcher


  15. Yeah, sending out all the passwords in an email does sound like a bad idea and I’m going along the lines of it sending out a link where the information can be found. Maybe with some sort of challenge / response that the loved one would easily be able to answer. Or maybe a series of security options so that you can decide what level of security is required.

    And glad to hear it! 🙂


  16. Just found your site tonight and love it, love it. First you had a fix for getting rid of Windows Desktop Search and back to the dog. That actually worked which inspired me to dig deeper into more recent areas of John’s Adventures.

    I’ve been working on something like the Dead Man Switch for quite some time. Not so much for my hubby but in case senility vacuums my brain and I will need the information to fall back on. But in fact it will be a great start for my man whom I have gotten up to speed on this machine since his 80th birthday. Of course mine is very rudimentary compared to yours but with what knowledge he has about the PC, I think I can teach him the rest.

    But your idea with all the automation set in place seems very marketable to maybe Yahoo, Google, Facebook or such. There’s got to be so many people who are too unorganized to figure out alone how their mom’s, kids, significan other or thier lawyers can take over in the event of…who knows.

    Keep spitting out those ideas and we’ll keep sounding them back at you.


  17. it sounds real good, but there is another out that was real good… It was called “Dead Man’s Switch” and is no longer suported by it’s author..

    It can be found here:,23183-order,1-page,1-c,alldownloads/description.html

    I think if you were to try it out and then expound on what your program can do, you would come up with a real winner… You have the right idea already… You would have the suport of Forest Pro Music should you come up with a good one…


  18. looks like someone finally takes this seriously.

    The things I’d want to have in such an app are a facebook, twitter, flickr, linked-in, myspace, ipernity and other social service integration so the app running on my server (wordpress for example) could post specific notices to each of those.

    How far is your app btw?


    • Heh heh, it’s currently in that “waiting for John to have enough spare time to write it” stage! I need to have about 3 clones of myself to get all the pet projects on my plate done or a lottery win so I don’t have to work and can do it full time!


  19. ah that old cloning problem. I see what you mean. Needs to be added to the app as well. “if no reset within 10 days, disperse clone +1” 🙂

    Fingers crossed for the lottery 😉


  20. Very cool post.
    I use RoboForm ( for all of my passwords and have already taught my wife how to use this program.
    p.s. Love your Background Switcher


  21. I do the same as Alexei (use Roboform); in terms of usefulness this is probably the best s/w tool I’ve paid money for; I just hope it stays SECURE.
    I tried to get my wife to use it but she hates it (I think its one of those “you either understand computers or you don’t” things).
    So giving her my Master Password may be a waste of time. And, of-course, it doesn’t cover non-web stuff…
    And BS is fantastic.


  22. That sounds like an interesting idea you have there, sir. I’m at that age you were talking about that something like this would almost be a necessity. I would like to see it when you get something, if I may.


  23. I’m sure you’ve heard of the several services that do this now, right? I wrote about them earlier this year at my blog.

    Also, you can download a Windows-only executable, for free, that does what you’ve been talking about. And, it will encrypt files on your Windows workstation, too, so you can hide all those secret notes to your mistresses!,23183-order,1-page,1-c,alldownloads/description.html

    Incidentally, I found this entry while searching for any WordPress plugins that do a similar function. Seems like a good idea if there aren’t any new posts in a certain amount of time, to post something automatically that tells people just which Russian Mafioso you were investigating so they can find who’s holding you hostage, or whatever.


  24. And, a few searches later, I’ve found the plugin, so I don’t need to make it!
    It’s called Next of Kin and you can find it here:

    Love your Theme, BTW. Especially the header graphic and the footer, though I’d link your name to your About page. Cool site, great blog!


    • Cool, thanks for the info! Of course this post was written way back in 2008 so clearly people have taken inspiration from my suggestions! 😉

      And thanks for your kind words about the site theme – I’m no graphic designer but thought I’d give it a try and see if I could create something personal to me and unique.


    • Not from me as yet – my free time is somewhat limited to work on things like this! However have a look above in the comments at some alternatives that are out there.


  25. Hi John. I just found your site while looking for a Dead Man’s Switch (DMS) script that I could adapt. I have found 2 DMS programs (DMS from Daisyman which is no longer available & DMS from Smart Start Tools), and several websites, but would much prefer my own script. I also just found your Background Switcher, and am very impressed, although I’ve only been using it for about an hour! Anyway, I hope you can eventually code your own DMS, because I suspect it will be superior to anything else out there.


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