Data preservation after a death
May 11, 2017 1:12 PM   Subscribe

Is there a digital equivalent to "the old box of letters in the attic"?

My sister passed away from cancer in January, which was something she knew was coming in a vague way for at least 6 months and in a very specific way for about a month. We have finished giving, donating, or selling her stuff according to her wishes, leaving just the three items she left to me: laptop, tablet, and smartphone.

I work with computers for both paycheck and hobby, so I'm choosing to process this as the modern day equivalent of inheriting my grandfather's woodworking tools, or my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother's sword. I'll use the laptop as my main work computer and the tablet and smartphone as test devices for mobile apps.

The devices will need to be reset to their factory defaults and wiped of data. My sister didn't leave any specific instructions about the contents, although she did on other stuff. For example, she had some journals from high school that she wanted burned unread, so we did that. She had backed up all the pictures and videos from the devices that she wanted saved, so we have those files. For her online presence, she delegated to one of her good friends who is social media savvy, so online stuff is in good hands.

So finally to get to my point and question: is there a way I can backup and encrypt the contents of the devices for, say, 100 years, and store them somewhere? I don't want to pick through her files, that feels like an invasion of privacy. However, if her great-grandnieces and great-grandnephews want to see family history from the dawn of the digital age, I'd like it to exist for them. I don't want to just encrypt it with a password as that'll certainly get lost, but it does feel right to encrypt it so that it won't be accessible until everyone alive is now dead. (If I'm not dead in 100 years, I owe you a Coke.) Encrypt for 100 years, then decrypt, with some kind of cloud based storage?

(Heh, I guess I could just encrypt it with the best possible encryption available today and trust that in 100 years that'll be breakable on a kid's Speak'N'Spell, but let's keep that as plan B.)

In my head this would be like keeping an old box of letters in the attic across generations, until someone finds it and gets to read great-great aunt's tale of taking the cows to market or raising the barn or inventing the text message. I don't want to just delete it / throw it in the trash. (Plus, while it is probable she does not have the secret formula for faster-than-light travel hidden on her cell phone, she might. After all, she was a librarian.)

posted by BeeDo to Computers & Internet (4 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think the old box of letters analogy is apt, and I'd take it literally by printing anything you want to be readable in 100 years. Encryption isn't your biggest challenge, the recordable media is. How likely is it that a USB drive will be usable in 100 years. What would you do with a 5.25" floppy if you had one today you need to read? And that is only 25 years old!

Edit - And I'm very sorry about your sister.
posted by COD at 2:02 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]

I mean, you COULD do it, but it might be the equivalent of getting a box full of computer punch cards... would you really go through the effort of figuring out how to decrypt them on the off chance that they might be cool/interesting? And computer punch cards were only 50 years ago.

If it were me, I'd bite the bullet and either print out stuff myself or possibly hire someone to print it out, on archival paper that will last 100 years, maybe avoiding reading stuff as much as possible. Then put it in a time capsule or safe or bank box with instructions in your will. I just don't see any other way to be sure.
posted by Huck500 at 2:04 PM on May 11 [4 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear about your sister.

Time-release encryption isn't really possible unless you've got an agent who you trust to both keep secrets and to continue to exist until you need the thing decrypted. Betting on a hundred year subscription to a cloud-based server seems mighty optimistic to me.

If you're not worried about preventing yourself from decrypting it, just write down the passphrase in several safe places and insure that it gets handed off to your inheritors along with your own digital files. Kick the can down the road for half a century. Or at least for the next few years until you think of something better. (If you're worried about losing a passphrase, it seems like you should be equally worried about losing the data.)

If you really need the full 100 years or you don't trust yourself not to peek, your consider encrypting it using a very popular scheme and breaking the passhrase into parts that each get distributed to multiple family members, all of whom swear to keep it a secret for a set length of time. You could generate key parts with redundancy, such that, e.g., there are four parts but any three will allow someone to recreate the original key. Then you just have to hope bad luck doesn't wipe out too many parts, and that someone eventually cares enough to bother reconstructing it.

The hardest task may actually be convincing people to keep the files around for a century when they don't have any immediate value. There are conflicting estimates of digital storage media - some DVDs and flash media might survive a hundred years, though you'll have better chances if you use a several different varieties and create error correction data- but the only sure way to keep this around is to insure that someone cares about it enough to keep transferring it to new storage every decade.

Personally, I'd rip out obvious system-files and other large directories that are unlikely to include user data, encrypt the rest to avoid indexing and accidents, store both the data and the passphrase in an obvious place among my own files, and trust that by the time anyone is looking through my data it's unlikely the contents would do any harm.
posted by eotvos at 2:37 PM on May 11

Someone wiser than me once said "a good long-term archiving strategy is a series of good short-term archiving strategies." Assuming you're not going to be around for 100 years to ensure transitions from one media type to another, perhaps the best approach is to try everything at once: create a backup drive. Burn an archival DVD. Upload to a cloud service. Print out as much as you can stand on archival paper. Etc. Put the password for the cloud service and all the physical media in a box (preferably a box that itself is heirloom-quality and will be passed along anyhow) with a combination lock. Write the combination on a piece of archival paper, put that in an envelope, and tape it to the box with the instructions "open in 2117" on the front.
posted by adamrice at 3:47 PM on May 11 [3 favorites]

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