'There has to be a better way': Taking care of your digital assets when you die

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A relationship break-up made Theresa Shaw question what happens to our digital assets once we die.

"I had to replace my phone and was going through all these digital accounts I had and setting them up and I thought 'There has to be a better way'," she says. "I have 20 or 30 different accounts and I thought 'Who is going to close all these things off when I pass away? How will they know what to do with my emails and what is happening with money in PayPal account?'".

Theresa Shaw is the founder of My Digital Afterlife.

Theresa Shaw is the founder of My Digital Afterlife. Credit:Ben Searcy

The Adelaide-based entrepreneur started investigating digital estates and discovered the rules varied from company to company and are often ambiguous.

"My background is in IT and I thought I am just going to do it and start a business that manages this problem," Shaw says.

Launching My Digital Afterlife

Shaw launched My Digital Afterlife in May after spending several months and around $100,000 in savings building the platform.

Users of My Digital Afterlife appoint an executor to their digital assets and provide the user names for their digital assets but not the passwords.

"You can't hand over that information to an executor as it violates the terms and conditions of most digital accounts," Shaw says. "It is also a huge risk to carry as if we had a data breach and the passwords were stolen that would be the end of the business."

Users pay a $4 monthly subscription fee which covers the information storage and there is no charge to the estate or executor for support and the release of the legacy information once a user passes away.

Demand for My Digital Afterlife

While My Digital Afterlife is still in its infancy, it has signed up more than 1300 users.

Competitors in the space include US-based companies Everplans and Final Roadmap, however, Shaw says these businesses have a broader focus than My Digital Afterlife, holding wills and legal and financial documents.

Shaw is confident there is demand for the service provided by her startup.

"Everyone I've talked to has got it straight away," says Shaw. "Most people don't realise how many digital assets they have, there's email, social media, payment systems and loyalty programs. You have more than you think because it's so easy to download apps and register for accounts."

Password company Dashlane analysed data from more than 20,000 users in 2015 and found the average internet users has 90 online accounts.

Meanwhile, a survey by security and anti-virus software company McAfee in 2011 found consumers in the United States valued their digital assets at $US55,000.

Theresa Shaw says most people don't realise how many digital accounts they have.

Theresa Shaw says most people don't realise how many digital accounts they have. Credit:Ben Searcy

Court orders and legacy contacts

The importance of having a plan for digital assets was highlighted by a case last month in the United Kingdom where Rachel Thompson pursued Apple through the courts in order to get access to her deceased husband's photos and videos.

Thompson spent three years fighting to open her husband's Apple account that held 4500 photos and 900 videos which she wanted for her 10-year-old daughter to remember her father by.

A spokesperson for Apple declined to comment, however, a well-placed source said in Australia surviving family members or next of kin would need to obtain an order from a judge that designates them as the inheritor.

"This demonstrates that companies feel that they are setting the rules around what happens to peoples' digital estates," Shaw says. "My photos in iCloud are irreplaceable to me, to Apple I don't think they have the same value construct around that data."

Thompson spent three years fighting to open her husband's Apple account that held 4500 photos and 900 videos.

Google has a function called 'Inactive Account Manager' which lets users appoint a trusted person to access their account after their death while Facebook users can appoint a 'legacy contact' for the same process.

If a Facebook user does not have a legacy contact the account is memorialised.

A spokesperson for Facebook said the social network has recently created new features that provide additional controls if a user dies.

"Legacy contacts can now moderate the posts shared to the new tributes section by changing tagging settings, removing tags and editing who can post and see posts," the spokesperson said. "This helps them manage content that might be hard for friends and family to see if they’re not ready. These new controls build on features we’ve had in place for years, like the ability to update the person’s profile picture and cover photo, and to pin a post to the top of their profile, which is often used for things like information about memorial services."

However Shaw says more needs to be done.

"It's my intention to lobby these organisations really hard," she says. "There is no consistent process, no duty of care to people around what happens to their digital estate."

It's an issue government is waking up to with NSW the first Australian jurisdiction to investigate digital legacies through a review by the NSW Law Reform Commission of legislation that affects access to a person's digital assets and digital records after they die or become incapacitated.

"It is an unintended consequence of technology that we have moved a lot of things we care about online," Shaw says. "I'd like to see the value of that back in the hands of the people."

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