Press "Enter" to skip to content

Jacob Riggs, founder of Deadswitch talks about private data security

Jacob Riggs is the founder of Deadswitch, a controversial dead man’s switch designed to protect people by enabling the targeted exposure of public-interest material.

Deadswitch works by enabling users to create their own switches where they can prime the automatic release of encrypted data to a predefined mailing list. Crucial to this operation is Jacob’s guarantee that once a switch is live, only his customers, through their own interaction, are capable of stopping this process.

Jacob was able to answer some of our questions about Deadswitch and the nature of the project purpose.

What is a dead man’s switch?

A dead man’s switch is a contingency mechanism designed to serve a protective function and is used in applications where continuous human intervention is necessary. This is typically seen in transport and engineering industries, where a fail-safe system will trigger after a set period of time in any event a driver or machine operator becomes incapacitated.

What inspired the creation of Deadswitch?

Like many within the security community, the Snowden revelations of 2013 renewed my appetite for public-interest transparency. I was highly suspicious of the state’s bureaucratic agenda, and quickly became consumed by the cypherpunk-era idea that encryption could nullify physical intervention. This is because there is a salient and undeniable truth to cryptography which I’ve always found appealing – that no measure of violence or proscriptive legislation will ever solve a math problem. This shifts the balance of power from those with a monopoly on violence to those that employ encryption and understand security design. A court order is as ineffective at accessing encrypted data as a nuclear weapon. Only the keyholder can access that data, and that power resides exclusively with them.

It was here that Deadswitch was conceived and became my object of obsession. I saw it as a way to empower people with technical safeguards and a last resort means to guarantee that their message would always survive in any circumstances they might not.

What kind of people are best suited to use Deadswitch?

Anyone intending to investigate or reveal sensitive public-interest material that could be put at risk for revealing such information. While this might apply to the general public, we see our core target market as those with a desire to ascertain control and autonomy over their data, specifically in terms of how it is stored and distributed. This could include anyone from social dissidents and investigative journalists, to public sector officials or whistleblowers.

How do you protect the data customers store with Deadswitch from being attacked and destroyed by implicated parties?

We leverage both legal and technical protections with online and offline contingencies in place to ensure we deliver on our promises. We also pride ourselves on Deadswitch demonstrating fault-tolerant systems so that no single-point-of-failure can exist to disrupt our operations.

How do you prevent Deadswitch being used for blackmail?

We employ technical and procedural safeguards to ensure that any data we supply to media on behalf of our customers is handled carefully and in accordance with agreed ethical standards. This minimises the risk of bad actors misusing our platform in an effort to facilitate blackmail, as media are prohibited from publishing any potentially harmful content they receive that fails the public interest test.

The right to share information is fundamental to a free and open society, but every sharing mechanism assumes a threshold of tolerance for abuse. Just as bad actors can use telephones and social media to cause harm, the same is true of email. Whilst email acts as a fast, reliable, and freely accessible mechanism for data to be securely exchanged, it also enables a range of options for misuse such as spam, phishing, and blackmail. Despite this, the adoption of such mechanisms has driven societal acceptance of an implicit bargain – that the right to freely distribute data, regardless of content, represents a natural and absolute imperative.

With this in mind, it’s important to remember that whilst bad actors exist, so too do good people. We believe that Deadswitch should be judged in the context of its maxim, and that the motivations for improper use of our services are incredibly impractical, costly, and of minor consequence to the wider benefits our service provides.

In your opinion, why is Deadswitch an important service in today’s world?

Using Deadswitch deters state intervention, as for a state party to arrest or murder a user will only trigger the exact event they’re trying to prevent (the release of that information). Any such intervention would only serve to compound the reliability and impact of that information once in the public domain. This is best understood via the Streisand effect and historic examples of international outrage to the state arranged murder of journalists investigating corruption.

Deadswitch is important because no custodian of the truth should have to fear their deliverance of the facts. Journalists and whistleblowers should not have to fear exposing wrongdoing, and the premise of deterrence forces state parties to focus less on persecuting those that do and more on understanding what issues their disclosures highlight.

What kind of support in terms of updates and feature improvements can Deadswitch users expect?

Our first private beta launched last year. This testing phase has been validated via the use of hand-picked beta participants. This process will enable us to pinpoint performance issues with our web app before we release it to the public. The feedback we gather during this stage will be crucial in enabling us to further our project development in a safe and secure way.

Once we’ve had an opportunity to identify and fix any potential bugs on our platform, we will be ready to launch the public beta. When ready, this version will naturally contain a plethora of new features. Besides being able to create dead man’s switches and deploy them in the cloud, customers can also look forward to iOS and Android mobile apps for receiving notifications, a fully functional web API, and a few other useful tools made by the Deadswitch team, to follow and deploy right away.

I’m happy that Deadswitch continues to progress every day and look forward to opening our platform for future adoption by those that need it most. Our goal from the outset has been to protect data custodians and improve the availability of factual information within the public space. Launching our private beta is the first of many steps in that journey.

Thank you Jacob for sharing your thoughts with us!
You can follow up with Jacob Riggs at