He took a £105m Bitcoin code to his grave. Now what?
In the digital era, how will families and spouses get access to password-protected online lives?
Gerald Cotten did not die intestate.
In fact, the wealthy internet entrepreneur drew up a will only 12 days before his death from Crohn’s disease, aged just 30.
In it, he thought of almost everything: his car (a Lexus), his yacht (a three-cabin 51-footer); his pet chihuahuas (Nitro and Gully) – even his air miles, leaving them all to his wife, Jennifer Robertson.
The only thing he didn’t hand over, however, was the key to his £105m fortune. Oops.
No one doubts he had the money. Hundreds of thousands of people, in fact, can testify to the fact.
They are the private investors in Cotten’s cryptocurrency exchange, QuadrigaCX, which provided a platform for them to deal in Bitcoin, Ethereum and the like: digital cash prized for its unbreakable security.
But this ironclad security has been its undoing, because only Cotten had the passwords to unlock their assets.
Only he had the key to open the digital treasure chest in which some of them, legal documents show, had stashed half a million pounds and more.
Of course, were it a real treasure chest, they would have long since taken an axe to it.
A safe would have been blown open. But brute force means nothing in the digital world.
When Robertson desperately drafted in hackers to help her crack the codes protecting Cotten’s hoard, they got nowhere.
So she started looking for passwords, racking her brains in her grief to think where her late husband might have left the codes. Perhaps on a note in their townhouse in Fall River, a suburb outside Halifax, on Canada’s eastern tip?
Or maybe it would be 5,310km away, at their place in Kelowna, amid the rural beauty of British Columbia? After all, as she told lawyers in an affidavit, “to the best of my knowledge, most of the business of the companies was conducted by Gerry wherever he and his computer was located”.
But despite her best efforts, the treasure trail led nowhere.
“I do not know the password or recovery key,” she told lawyers.
“Despite repeated and diligent searches, I have not been able to find them.”
She and Quadriga investors were locked out. They can press their noses up against their millions, but they cannot access them; as Pamela Morgan, author of Cryptoasset Inheritance Planning, bluntly says: “Humans die. Cryptocurrencies don’t.”
Inevitably, conspiracy theories are already rife.
Cotten is not really dead, naysayers maintain: it’s a scam, a hoax. Too implausible to be true.
But Robertson insists it is. Her husband, despite his condition, was not terminally ill – his death was completely unexpected.
This is not the first time vast troves of cryptocurrencies have been left dangling tantalisingly out of reach, following the death of their owners.
Five years ago Matthew Moody, an early Bitcoin investor, died in a plane crash. His father, despite years of effort, has been unable to access his son’s money.
Perhaps the greatest lost treasure of all is that rumoured to belong to fabled Bitcoin inventor Satoshi Nakamoto, who has not been heard from since 2011 and is thought to have had a digital wallet containing billions. All of it out of reach.
It sounds absurd. Yet who among us cannot empathise with Moody’s father, Michael? Who has not experienced, albeit likely to a somewhat smaller degree, the panic in Robertson’s testimony upon realising that a vast slice of the life she shared with her husband was inextricably locked behind a digital door?
So what happens to all that when we die?
One man who wants answers is Ian Russell, father of 14-year-old Molly, who killed herself after accessing posts glamorising suicide on social media.
He and Andrew Walker, the coroner looking into her death, are trying to find out more about her movements online to shed full light on her tragic death.
But they are struggling.
Both Molly’s iPhone and iPod touch are passcode-protected, and the pair are reaching out to Apple to help them unlock the devices, hoping the US giant is more sympathetic to such requests than it was in 2016, when the FBI tried to force the company to unlock a phone found on one of the terrorists who had killed 14 the previous December in a shooting in San Bernardino, California.
Eventually, the FBI found a method of hacking their way in and dropped the case, and debate continues about whether a government should be able to compel a company to decrypt the devices of private citizens.
Molly’s father wants the social media platforms she used, including Instagram, YouTube and Pinterest, to hand over her data as well.
If they do, it will mark a turning point in our relationship with such companies, who regard our personal information as their own to use and sell on to the highest bidder.
But the dad believes her phone data should become her parents’ property. “She died without a will, she was 14 and everything else quite naturally returns to us as her parents," he says.
He is far from the only one in such a painful dilemma.
Countless grieving relatives find themselves locked out of a dead relative’s online world.
Such barriers can present intractable administrative problems, given the volume of bureaucratic tasks we now all manage digitally, from our financial records to our health.
But we do far more online than just admin. Increasingly, our activity there represents a large slice of our identities, of how we wish to present ourselves – and how we want to be remembered.
The technology already exists to create “chatbots”, which analyse your online history to create an uncanny replica of you with which you – or surviving relatives – can communicate via text message.
That is just the beginning. Today our digital selves are extensions of our physical selves. Tomorrow they may be detachable, taking on a life of their own.
And as they do, an entire industry is springing up to cater to it: the digital afterlife industry (DAI), comprising everything from online wills dictating who should get access to your social media accounts, all the way to the creation of your immortal avatar, a permanent digital legacy.
As services seek to make handing over access to your online life – and fortune – easier, only time will tell whether they are embraced with the same sense of non-negotiability as traditional wills.
Fail to do so, and risk being left with an ethereal conundrum like Cotten’s.
Just make sure you don’t forget your password.
– © The Sunday Telegraph