The Domain Name System (DNS) is a hierarchical decentralized naming system for computers, services, or other resources connected to the Internet or a private network. It associates various information with domain names assigned to each of the participating entities. Most prominently, it translates more readily memorized domain names to the numerical IP addresses needed for locating and identifying computer services and devices with the underlying network protocols. By providing a worldwide, distributed directory service, the Domain Name System is an essential component of the functionality on the Internet, that has been in use since 1985.
“What happens when you type in google.com” is a classic interview question. The general idea of the question is that you can go in depth so far as to dissect what happens at every keystroke or you can say “well the website resolves”. Either way in your answer the way that this system works is through DNS. This system has been in use for the last ~33 years and it is a great way that records work assuming that they are maintained. The idea that you will be able to maintain these records forever is a bit optimistic and some would even say impossible.
The issue here being when your DNS records expire through your name registrar of choice, they are going to be once again available for purchase. This means that if someone can purchase my domain they own my web identity. Obviously, this means that they could serve malware at my domain, redirect to another website and even setup a page defaming me. None of these are of that much concern as they are not avoidable but the most interesting idea behind a DNS record going to someone else is that the person would be able to inherit email that was meant to be sent to me. If that the email wasn’t encrypted they would have basically bought a PO box that previously belonged to me and receive all of my mail. The alternative to this being that you can host your email through a company on a server that belongs to someone else which isn’t without sacrifice as a decision to make. To dive into the inherit flaws in this is outside the scope of this blog post as these are not things that are within your control.
DNSSEC does exist that mitigates this issue to a point but it is not widely used. The idea here being that you no longer own the DNS records and the idea that possibly this could be mitigated. The idea that you could either license the domain for an extended period to make sure that the communication you were receiving goes to a next of kin perhaps or the alternative would be that you would be able to have a domain funeral. The domain funeral in this case being exactly akin to a traditional process of moving on to the afterlife (if you believe in that sort of thing) or being placed in a grave never to be accessed again. Currently with a system of this age the mortality of man was not factored into the system at design nor should it have been necessarily. The implications of this however are that if you own DNS you become a person without the proper mitigation which is not the standard now.
A business need seems to exist for a post mortem world of computational glory. A business built by trusted enthusiasts for other enthusiasts. Currently offerings for this are very primitive in Dead Man’s Switch as far as I can tell nothing like this exists. Granted the needs of this go beyond DNS and can extend to VPS systems that could be taken down, memories that need to be parsed out through multiple terabytes of hardware and cloud storage, and various online personas that a person can request to be archived or pulled down entirely. The amount of data that we store and use isn’t going to go down in size over time and largely the mortality of man isn’t considered when these systems are designed.
An anecdote that I can share is that I have a Great Grandfather who is currently 92 years old. He has a large sum of computational equipment and I believe that he was a great inspiration to myself in getting interested in computers. He has purchased video cameras since they were available and has recorded a myriad of family memories with them as well as a small collection of DSLR styled cameras and I believe he has 3 computers in his home office at my time of this writing. His wife or my Great Grandmother passed away leaving him a widow and it was at this moment that I started to ponder the implications of his passing as it isn’t a question of if so much as a question of when. This view depending on interpretation is “dark” or perhaps “removed” but the immediate thought of this being, I am the computer guy in the family and they are probably going to ask me for assistance on this. What would he want done with his records? Which ones would he want purged? What things should be cherished and where are they? What accounts currently exist in his name? What does he want done with them if anything? The ideas here being to honor my grandfather by honoring his wishes in the same way a will would be honored after his passing.
This post got a little into the weeds per say but the question that will be left here is this: What is your plan for your computers, DNS records and online accounts after you pass?
Update: I had read about this previously but I wasn’t able to find the information but now I have it! Andrew Kalat (@Lerg) wrote a book called “Managing Digital Legacies” and did a talk titled “Online No One Knows You’re Dead” at Shmoocon 2016.