How to Protect Bitcoin for Your Heirs With the Push of a ‘Dead Man’s Button’

What happens to your bitcoin after you die?

This is more than just a philosophical question: It could involve a substantial amount of currency.

The question of crypto and the Great Beyond is what prompted about 20 or so developers to get together in London recently to experiment with repurposing the current lightning protocol to send private messages as a “dead man’s button,” a system that can’t be censored and would keep your crypto safe for your heirs.

Lightning Labs infrastructure engineer Joost Jager has been exploring using lightning for messaging over the past year. At the Advancing Bitcoin conference in London, Jager hosted a workshop to figure out how to build a dead man’s button with lightning. Should he succeed, he said, it would show the world lightning can be used as messaging system as well as a payment network.

These buttons are not new. At the workshop, Jager noted Edward Snowden, the National Security Agency whistleblower, used one in case he died before journalists could reveal the contents of the documents he wanted to make public.

The goal of the workshop was to explore one of lightning’s relatively new features, “keysend” (formerly known as spontaneous payments). It’s so experimental it isn’t even described in the lightning specifications yet. But it does offer a way to send data (called “custom records” in LND, the lightning implementation Jager works on) along with a transaction.

Here’s how it might work: Imagine a user who wants to pass on a bitcoin (BTC) inheritance. That user would communicate with a “service,” pushing a “button” that would send a message every week or so to signify that the user is still alive.

If the button isn’t pressed one week, it is assumed the bitcoin user is dead or incapacitated and it’s time for the bitcoin to be passed on, at which point the service automatically dispenses a “secret,” which can be used to retrieve the crypto.

Beyond that, Jager thought some additional features should be added, even if they…

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