Here Today, Gone Forever?

by Sue Halpern



Buried – sorry – in Biz Carson’s fascinating obituary of Hal Finney, who died this week from ALS, is a small aside with large implications. Finney, who was 58, was the first owner of bitcoins besides developer Satoshi Nakamoto (not his real name). This was in 2008, in a somewhat serendipitous turn of events, which Finney chronicled last year, typing via an eye tracker.

When Satoshi announced the first release of the software, I grabbed it right away. I think I was the first person besides Satoshi to run bitcoin. I mined block 70-something, and I was the recipient of the first bitcoin transaction, when Satoshi sent ten coins to me as a test. I carried on an email conversation with Satoshi over the next few days, mostly me reporting bugs and him fixing them. After a few days, bitcoin was running pretty stably, so I left it running… I mined several blocks over the next days. But I turned it off because it made my computer run hot, and the fan noise bothered me.

So the question is, now that he has died, what happens to Finney’s virtual currency?

It’s the same question any one of us can ask, looking ahead, about our virtual “possessions,” whether they are documents stored on Dropbox, or passwords to our email accounts, or game characters.

Finney, who has been cryogenically preserved, was clearly a forward-looking guy. Before he died, he secured his bitcoins in a safe deposit box. But will it be enough to ensure that his son and daughter inherit them? And what about our stuff, stored “up there,” somewhere, “in the cloud,” where there is no safe deposit box?

Last month, in an unprecedented move, Delaware became the first state to enact a digital inheritance law. The Digital Assets and Digital Accounts Act is meant to give authorized individuals brief, “peek and copy” access to third-party accounts. Apparently, the tech companies are not pleased and have formed the “State Privacy and Security Coalition” to fight it. They will be even less pleased when some version of the law is adopted in other states, as it is expected to be:

Jim Halpert of DLA Piper, a law firm that represents the coalition, told the Wall Street Journal that the group opposes the laws because accounts may contain information the deceased do not want to disclose, and because they may “conflict with a 1986 federal law forbidding consumer electronic-communications companies from disclosing digital content without its owner’s consent.”

But Jeff John Roberts thinks this is weak:

Neither of these explanations are particularly convincing, however. Despite the companies’ profession of privacy concerns for their late users, the reality is that people have been dying — and leaving behind artifacts for relatives and others to find — for a very long time. The digital dimensions of our personal lives don’t change that.

[Note to self: do not leave will on iCloud.]

(Photo of bitcoins by Steve Garfield)