The great digital beyond

The great digital beyond

A friend recently told me of the challenge she faced sorting through her aging parents’ belongings to prepare their home for sale.

Her father had died years ago and her 94-year-old mother had been living in an assisted-care facility for more than a year. Most of the items of sentimental or personal value had already been distributed to her siblings. What remained were her parents’ personal archives — letters, photos, employment/financial/legal/health records, all tangible, physical objects that, once gone, would be gone forever.

In the internet age, personal archives are no longer limited to the tangible. In fact, much of one’s personal archives is now digital — emails, texts, photos, videos and social media accounts. And there’s a lot more content generated and stored than ever before. Some is saved on personal storage space, such as a computer hard drive. Other material lives in the cloud in services like Facebook, Google Mail and YouTube. In most cases, that content is protected by some kind of password.

So what becomes of all of that information when someone dies? Does it remain online forever? Can it be altered, deleted or downloaded, and if so, by whom? And how do these digital artifacts represent your life and legacy?

These questions inspired Evan Carroll and John Romano to create the website thedigitalbeyond.com to address these needs and concerns. Together they wrote the book “Your Digital Afterlife” in 2011. Since that time an entire industry has emerged to help people plan for managing their digital legacy. Thedigitalbeyond.com lists dozens of such online services. Some are free while others are fee-based.

Knotifyme.com, for example, “answers the question, ‘What happens to all my online accounts if I get amnesia, Alzheimer’s or if I leave from this world?’ With knotify.me you set future notifications to be sent to your family and beloved people or to yourself, ensuring that nothing of your digital life will be wasted (and) transfers your online property/heritage (urls, domain names, e-mail & social network accounts, etc.) to whomever you wish to continue it in the future!” You can sign up for this free service through your Facebook, Twitter or Google accounts. In short, according to its tagline, Knotifyme.com “manages your digital heritage.”

To address financial matters, consider Legacyarmour.com, which describes itself as “a secure asset protection platform where you organize your important information in encrypted vaults, and …. automatically deliver it to your designated recipients on a scheduled date, or in case of your death or incapacitation.” It is a fee-based membership service with different levels of coverage and prices depending on what you want.

The rapid growth of the web has outpaced the law in the realm of the digital afterlife. It wasn’t until 2015 that the Uniform Law Commission, a nongovernment organization, created the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). It has since been adopted by 40 states and been introduced in five more this year. As its name suggests, RUFADAA “allows fiduciaries to manage digital property like computer files, web domains, and virtual currency, but restricts a fiduciary’s access to electronic communications such as email, text messages, and social media accounts unless the original user consented in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other record.”

Some online services have their own policies for providing access to a person’s account after he or she dies. Facebook allows users to designate a “Legacy Contact” who is legally permitted to enter someone’s account to post, respond to friend requests, and update profile and cover photos. The Legacy Contact may also be given the power to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information in that account. Facebook users can also simply opt to have their account permanently deleted after their death. Google offers an Inactive Account Manager feature that allows users to share parts of their account data or notify someone if they’ve been inactive for a certain period of time.

One important and often repeated piece of advice is to never put usernames and passwords for any online accounts in your will, as it becomes a public record once it is entered into a probate court file.

It is never too soon to start estate planning, whether it be for tangible assets or digital ones. It may be well worth your time to investigate the policy options of your online account services and perhaps even avail yourself of some of the many digital afterlife services available today.

Cerise Oberman, SUNY Distinguished Librarian Emeritus, retired as dean of Library & Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh. She can be reached at cerise.oberman@plattsburgh.edu. Tim Hartnett is associate librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, Reach him at tim.hartnett@plattsburgh.edu.

How to Handle Digital Assets of the Deceased

Criminals have perfected the art of taking over dead peoples’ online accounts

When you die, your relatives will be sad and (depending on the circumstances of your death) possibly left scrambling to make arrangements for your remains, effects, and estate.

The digital afterlife of your online accounts has gotten less fraught since I wrote about it six years ago, with digital platforms and login managers adding in tools and policies to preserve or manage online accounts after your death.

But chances are that when your loved ones are trying to figure out what to do with you and all you leave behind, they’re not going to be skilled operators of these digital memorial systems. They will be slow to adopt them and will struggle to use them.

But criminals have had plenty of dead people to practice on, and have become virtuoso hijackers of the internet of the dead. They’ve also figured out that duplicating the accounts of dead people is an excellent way to make plausible seeming fakes that are likely to last longer than hijacked identities of the living.

Chris Boyd’s Manchester B-Sides presentation on The Digital Entropy of Death builds on his recent written work on the subject. It’s an eye-opening look into the possible security risks of digital death, along with some practical advice for “taking ownership of your digital accounts before somebody else does.”

The manner in which they hand over the password manager account is incredibly important, too. Is it a physical thing? A login written on paper? Something digital? Is it secure? Maybe it’s a hard drive. Is it encrypted? How will it be updated with new logins/ changes to passwords? Does the relative live nearby if it’s physical? If they live far away, would something purely online make more sense?

These are all important questions that need to be thrashed out long before handing account information over, and it’s probably a bit much to put the onus on the recipient to start bolting security gates you may have left wide open. Do some pre-handover diligence, and make some time to ensure everything is locked down tight. If there’s anything hugely important you need them to know, tell them in advance—don’t hand over a hard drive and ask them why they didn’t make a backup two months after the thing has fallen into the bathtub.

 

 

Why you should keep track of your most critical digital assets

What happens to your Facebook account after you die?

The death of a loved one has always been a difficult moment but with the rise of the internet and social media platforms, families now also have to contend with sometimes-murky digital afterlife rules.

Only 13% of people have made any sort of plans regarding their social media accounts following their death, according to a 2017 survey by the Digital Legacy Association (DLA).

“Social media platforms are now understanding that they need to have an end of life policy,” James Norris, founder of the DLA, told Euronews.

“The technology they’re starting to bring in is a great start but there’s still a lot to do.

“One of the main problems when it comes to planning for your digital death and the array of different accounts that we have is that each platform is different and each requires a different way in which to manage how the account is passed on,” he explained, recommending people document their wishes in a social media will.

Below are the rules on users’s death for the main platforms.

Rules on deceased social media users

Facebook users can appoint a legacy contact who would then have access to their account after their death. That person can then look after the memorialised account or delete it.

If no legacy contact has been appointed by the user, Facebook memorialises the account when it becomes aware of the user’s passing.

Once memorialised, the account can’t be logged into and remains visible to the audience it was shared with as a place for them to “gather and share memories,” according to Facebook’s settings.

To remove a deceased user’s account, Twitter requires a person authorised to act on behalf of the estate or a verified immediate family member of the deceased to make a request or the account will be deactivated.

They will need to provide details including information about the deceased, a copy of their ID, and a copy of the late user’s death certificate, according to Twitter’s Help Centre.

Google

Like Facebook, Google allows users to appoint a person who would be responsible for their account after their death. This so-called “Inactive Account Manager” is then able to access account information and delete the account.

If no such person is appointed, immediate family members can get in touch to request the account be deleted.

However, Google highlights on its Help page that “any decision to satisfy a request about a deceased user will be made only after careful review”.

Digital remains should be treated with the same care and respect as physical remains

Digital remains should be treated with the same care and respect as physical remains

From live-streaming funerals to online memorial pages and even chat-bots that use people’s social media footprints’ to act as online ghosts, the digital afterlife industry (DAI) has become big business.

Our internet activity, commonly referred to as digital remains, lives on long after we die. In recent years, as firms such as Facebook and experimental start-ups have sought to monetize this content by allowing people to socialise with the dead online, the boundaries around acceptable afterlife activity and grief exploitation, have become increasingly blurry.

To date, there has been little effort to build frameworks that ensure ethical usage of digital remains for commercial purposes. However, new research from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) suggests that the guidelines used to manage human remains in archaeological exhibitions could be used as a framework to regulate the growing industry and make the commercial use of digital remains more ethical.

The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, was conducted by Professor Luciano Floridi, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics of Information and Director of the Digital Ethics Lab, and Carl Öhman, a postdoctoral researcher at OII, advises that online remains should be viewed in the same way as the physical human body, and treated with care and respect rather than manipulated for commercial gain.

The paper suggests that regulation is the best way to achieve this and highlights the frameworks used to regulate commercial use of organic human remains as a good model to build on.

A document of particular interest is the International Council of Museums (ICOM) Code of Professional Ethics. The text cautions that human remains must be handled in accordance with their inviolable ‘human dignity’. Central to this concept is the fact that it applies regardless of whether the patient is aware or not – to individuals and groups alike. A factor that has proven key to the process of repatriating remains from marginalised and previously colonised groups, such as the First Nations.

The code states explicitly that human dignity requires that digital remains be seen as the informational corpses of the deceased and regarded as having inherent value. They therefore must not be used solely for commercial gains such as profit.

Carl Öhman commented: ‘Much like digital remains, archaeological and medical exhibit objects such as bones and organic body parts, are both displayed for the living to consume and difficult to allocate to a specific owner. As exhibits have become increasingly digitalised and made available online, the ethical concerns of the field appear to be increasingly merging with those of the digital afterlife industry.

‘The fact that these frameworks have proved effective is heartening and suggests that they could also be used in the same way for the DAI.’

Adopting a similar regulatory approach for the DAI would clarify the relationship between deceased individuals and the firms holding or displaying their data.

In recommending a framework for regulation the paper identifies four Digital Afterlife industries; information management services, posthumous messaging services, online memorial services and re-creation services – which use a person’s digital footprint to generate new messages replicating the online behaviour of the deceased.

While this service has yet to be adopted by mainstream technology giants, such as Facebook and Twitter, the paper finds that the services provide the highest level of online presence post-mortem. It is therefore both at risk of exploiting the grief of the loved ones of the deceased and the greatest threat to an individual’s afterlife privacy.

Professor Luciana Floridi, said: ‘Human remains are not meant to be consumed by the morbidly curious. Regardless of whether they are the sole legal owner of the deceased’s data – and irrespective of whether the opinion of their next of kin, with regulation, DAI firms would have to abide by certain conventions, such as, preventing hate speech and the commercial exploitation of memorialised profiles’.

Under these regulations, firms would be required to at the very least guarantee that consumers are informed on how their data may be used or displayed in the event of their death.

Professor Floridi added: ‘In developing a constructive ethical approach for the use of digital remains the first step is to decide to what extent, and under what circumstances, our memory of the deceased is driven and shaped by the commercial interests of the industry. The second and equally important step will be to develop a regulatory framework, commonly adopted, to ensure dignity for those who are remediated and remembered online.’

More information: Carl Öhman et al. An ethical framework for the digital afterlife industry, Nature Human Behaviour (2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41562-018-0335-2

E-mortality: Death in the Digital Age

E-mortality: Death in the Digital Age

Michele Flanigan doesn’t sound like a necromancer on the phone. She laughs easily, and many of her sentences rise in pitch like open-ended questions—quirks I would not have expected in a confessed raiser of the dead.

Before she took her current job as office manager at Lakeview Cemetery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, where her grandmother and mother also worked, Flanigan did a stint in New Haven at Grove Street Cemetery, Yale’s silent neighbor. When she started, the burial records were “a mess,” she told me. She immediately began to organize the records with Microsoft Excel for quicker reference.

“I have to [organize the records], because otherwise I may never find what I’m looking for,” she said. “I’m an organizational freak, so that was definitely my first priority.”

What started out as a managerial project soon morphed into an attempt to digitize death. Over the next two years, the Grove Street staff uploaded the records Flanigan digitized to a searchable database on the cemetery’s website. Flanigan was struck by how many families called the office asking for their loved ones’ records to be added to the database. Thousands of the burials on the site—8,023 of the more than 14,000 listed—occurred before 1990, when the Internet began to go mainstream. For many of them, other than their archived obituaries, these online burial records are the only digital evidence of their existence.

When Flanigan set out to reorganize her workspace, she inadvertently resurrected more than 8,000 people in cyberspace. But Flanigan’s project is not unique, nor is it the most ambitious: a quick Google search for “digital death” reveals countless websites and services that aim to protect our online legacies after we pass on. From creating simple memorial websites to designing complex social networks, arranging for an afterlife in the cloud could soon become a normal part of preparing for death, not unlike finalizing a will or selecting a casket.

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Five years ago, Mandy Benoualid and her father paid a visit to a large cemetery near downtown Montreal. Benoualid’s grandmother was interred in the cemetery’s columbarium, a stone structure that holds funeral urns. When she passed away, the urn containing her ashes had been placed in one of the many compartments lining the columbarium’s wall. Benoualid was paying her respects to her beloved grandmother when a glimmer caught her eye.

A CD cased in plastic rested in front of an urn with a man’s name inscribed on it. The front of the case said, “Dad’s work.”

Presuming “Dad” to be a writer or a musician, Benoualid googled the name on the urn but could not find any information about his life. He had no digital presence. She was frustrated by the elusiveness of his identity.

“Everybody in a cemetery has some type of history, some type of story to tell,” Benoualid told me. “There’s that date of birth and that date of death and that dash in between, and there’s so much life story within that dash.”

Shortly after that cemetery visit, she set out to help people define their dashes.

In 2013, Benoualid founded Qeepr, a website whose mission is “to ensure a loved one’s legacy lives on(line) forever.” A deceased person’s relatives can use Qeepr to design a custom online memorial page complete with photos, life milestones, and a family tree. Qeepr is one member of a larger suite of websites working to answer the same question: what should happen to our digital presence when we die?

Qeepr’s answer is simple: digital death, like digital life, should be social.