Most adults should have a legal will that provides instructions on what should happen to your assets in the event of your death. A will is not just for old people – anyone can suffer an illness or be involved in an accident that leads to their death. And while wills were principally focussed with physical goods, many of us hold valuable digital assets that might become inaccessible when you die. What happens to those?
#1 User names and passwords
In a sense, these are the easy ones. Most of us probably have more user accounts on different services than we can count. But there are some key ones – things like online banking, share trading accounts and cryptocurrency wallets.
My suggestion is to write the account details down (like, on actual paper!) and seal them in an envelope that sits in another envelope that has a foreboding “Only to be opened in the event of my death” message on the front.
Then, stash that letter in a secure location such as a solicitor’s office or some other stronghold. Or give it to a trusted party like the executor of your will.
#2 Multi-factor authentication
You should be using two-factor or multi-factor authentication on every service that offers it. You’ll need to look at how each authentication service works but many have an option for having the second factor accessible from more than one place. For example, if you use Google Authenticator you could set it up on a second device.
#3 Digital assets
This is where it can get tricky. If you’re like me, you’ll have accumulated lots of music, movies and TV shows in the days before streaming services became mainstream. Unless you have physical copies of those assets, then accessing them from cloud services can become tricky.
When you buy a song or movie from a digital service, you aren’t actually buying a copy of the asset. In the majority of cases, you’re buying the right to access the content and that right is not transferable.
I’ve got a bunch of apps, movies and music that I’ve purchased through Google Play and the Apple iTunes and App Stores. The majority of that is from Apple so I;ve set up Family Sharing so my wife and kids can get access to the content I’ve purchased. So, even if I suddenly depart this existence, they can still watch my movies and listen to my tunes.
So, while the rights aren’t transferable, it may be possible for access to your digital assets to continue. But don’t forget the user accounts associated with that content as it might be needed if the content is protected with DRM.
#4 Powers of attorney
While not strictly about your digital life, providing someone you trust with financial and medical powers of attorney is pretty important. These are legal documents that allow someone to make decisions on your behalf.
For example, when my parents were ageing, financial and medical powers of attorney were distributed between me and my siblings so we could make decisions on our parents’ behalf should they become unable.
Those documents can assist with getting banks and other bodies to provide access to accounts that might otherwise be locked down.
#5 Social media
Access to social media accounts might seem trivial but it can be important. One of the hardest things to do when someone dies is notify all the affected people promptly. When death is expected, families often create a communications plan so that family and friends are informed in a timely and respectful way.
Different social networks can do this. For example, Facebook allows you to define a “legacy contact” in your personal settings. This is someone who can manage your account in case of your death or if you’re incapacitated. Choose someone you can trust and let them know they have this responsibility.
Some personal experience
My father was a very organised person.
Before he died, he prepared a folder on his computer that he told us all about. In it were copies of important documents and a point-form bio with key dates and places and other information that made the logistics of planning his funeral far less stressful.
While that was a really hard time, having that information ready was a great blessing to us. While you might not care what happens after you die, there will be people grieving and being a little organised can help them at that time.
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.
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.
The path Canadians must take to inform their governments about a death in the family is getting a digital overhaul to avoid delays that can — and have — lead to wrongful or missed benefit payments.
Federal, provincial and territorial governments turned to private consultants two years ago to offer a blueprint for a system where everything is handled electronically and family members don’t need to contact multiple government departments in an effort that can seem repetitive and unnecessary.
An 85-page consultants’ report from October 2016 called for the end of “multiple layers of administration” in provinces and territories, inconsistent sharing of information between jurisdictions, and paper-based processes that result in forms that aren’t legible or are incomplete.
The lack of electronic collection and sharing of information is “the greatest constraint” facing governments that need timely registration and notification of a death, the report said.
“If a jurisdiction intends to advance upon the proposed blueprint, it must first undertake an aggressive plan to transition to digital modes of information collection and dissemination, thereby replacing all manual processes and paper forms with digital processes.”
The consultants also called on governments to make more information easily available for citizens because many don’t know what they need to do when a loved one dies.
A briefing note to the chief operating officer at Service Canada a few months after the consultants’ report landed noted the “great disparity” in the “available resource capacity” in provinces and territories to meet the digital nirvana envisioned.
Officials said some provinces and territories would reach the finish line sooner than others, partly due to resources, partly due to unique issues facing different jurisdictions.
In Ontario, for instance, municipalities play a role in the process, steps which the consultants noted “do not necessarily add value.”
In the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the consultants said there were challenges validating the identity of a deceased because it is common for people to use aliases and have different addresses for different situations.
As well, the spelling of surnames can vary within Inuit communities and families because some Inuit citizens didn’t agree with how their names were originally registered with the government, the consultants wrote.
The Canadian Press obtained a copy of the briefing note and a final draft of the consultants’ report under the Access to Information Act.
Yves Berthiaume, president of the Funeral Services Association of Canada, said a uniform, nationwide notification system would make life easier for families and funeral directors who often act as a key point of contact between the family and governments.
Provinces and territories are responsible for collecting the information about a person’s death and they pass on details to Service Canada, which notifies federal benefits programs to stop payments to the deceased and start payments to surviving partners.
Hiccups in the process can lead — and have led — to mistakes in benefits payments, followed by uncomfortable collection calls from Service Canada officials that the federal government would rather avoid happening in the first place.
“If we don’t receive the information in a timely manner, then it results in difficult situations for Canadians,” said Anik Dupont, director general with Service Canada.
There has been a trend in recent years, both in literature and in life, for Scandinavian concepts that are encapsulated in a single word. Hygge, for example – which is Danish for cosiness, contentment or well-being – dominated the publishing industry in 2016.
Now, the new buzzword on the block is “dostadning” – a hybrid of the Swedish words “death” and “cleaning”. How much these fad words are actually a part of Scandinavian culture is debatable, but dostadning is the new phenomenon outlined in Margareta Magnusson’s The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning. In Europe, the book has already occupied a good deal of reviewing space and according to Time magazine, dostadning will be the hot new trend stateside in 2018.
Magnusson’s book chimes with the current anxiety about clutter in the 21st century. Dostadning advocates the proactive and mindful clearing out of possessions before death. The idea is that it saves relatives the onerous task of making decisions about what to keep and what to throw or give away. The book reflects the simple fact that we are all living longer lives. This results, of course, in more stuff.
But it also means we have more time to get rid of things. We can start planning for our death by slimming down what we leave behind – shedding unnecessary objects in favour of what we actually need. It is the antithesis, perhaps, of the ancient Egyptian tradition of being buried with things that might accompany us into the afterlife.
Magnusson’s top tips for dostadning focus mostly on material possessions – though she suggests keeping a book of passwords for family so they can access online data more easily. But this is no straightforward task, given that more and more of our data – photos, letters, memories – as well as actual things – music and books – exist in digital rather than analogue form. And as more of our lives are logged and lodged virtually, chances are our relatives might not be able to access it.
A documentary about this precise issue aired recently on BBC Radio 4. My Digital Legacy was part of the We Need to Talk about Death series and featured terminally ill patients with an extensive digital footprint who rely on the internet – especially on social media – to connect to the world around them. The programme also heard from bereaved relatives who experienced difficulties in accessing data, including Facebook profiles, of loved ones after their death.
The death manager
My recent short story How To Curate a Life, published by Storgy Books in the anthology Exit Earth, deals with precisely this issue. Set in the not too distant future, the parents of a young woman killed suddenly in an accident try to commission Jesse – a “digital death manager” – not to curate her life but to erase it: to gain access to her files then destroy them.
In this fictional world where everyone is required to dictate the terms of their digital estate, it is illegal for Jesse to tamper with the girl’s online content. And yet, the financial reward would mean freedom from his desk bound job forever.
The story grew from an idea I found online about careers that will be ubiquitous in the future. Digital death management, it seems, is definitely set to become “A Thing”. And just as we now commission solicitors or will writers to oversee our material estate – there will come a time when people will also hire someone to clean up their digital footprint
In our already busy lives, does tending to our online existence give us one more thing to do? Perhaps so. But it’s about taking responsibility for our own stuff. If we don’t make the decisions about what to keep or discard – whether actual or online – then ultimately others will need to. And if we don’t leave clear directions about where to find our digital content, it makes things tougher for everyone.
As Magnusson writes, death cleaning is “a permanent form of organisation that makes everyday life run smoothly”. What better legacy to leave behind than to ease the bereavement process for the ones we love?
The digital entropy of death: link rot
Hot on the heels of a grim blog about digital death comes…another blog about digital death. Except in this case, the recently deceased would be the links that tie the web together, otherwise known as link rot.
Link rot is a weird thing. Say I blog for Puppy Chow and I write an article about the best dog shows. For one of my examples, I link to an article with the URL “fabulous-puppy-show.html.” Since I’m Puppy Chow, my product has a decent shelf-life and my blog sticks around for a while. But now, if readers stumble upon that original Puppy Chow article and click on my example link, they land on a page about “Top 10 laptops of 2018.” What gives?
Over time, websites get taken offline, or companies start to run out of server space and delete old articles, or (arguably worse) they simply add new, unrelated content to old URL links (Hence best laptops on a page with “puppy show” in the URL). One suspects some sites replace content on old URLs rather than create new ones because the URL as it stands has a good PageRank in search engines. Why reinvent the wheel, when you can keep driving traffic to one of your pages regardless of the desired content?
Not to put too fine a point on it, but portions of the web that we use on a daily basis are slowly, almost imperceptibly dying. That’s one of the reasons why sites such as archive.org exist. Top tip: if you have an online bio or linkdump of any kind for personal projects, save yourself a headache and link to pages on the Archive instead. You’ll probably have to move all your links over to it after around five years of “the page is still there, honest it is” anyway.
As regular readers are aware, we post a lot blog posts. We’ve been blogging since 2012, and long may it continue. Those posts naturally will link to all manner of websites and information, and we have absolutely zero control over those sites still being around in the future. In fact, every time someone links to a third-party site, they’re just sort of assuming the thing will still be there tomorrow. Maybe the site owner dies. Maybe it’s been hacked and sends you to Viagra spam. Maybe the city turns into sludge after a Bitcoin frenzy. Who knows; the point is, anything you link to today could be something entirely different tomorrow.
The long and the short of it
This problem is made worse when people use now-defunct link shorteners or similar services that suddenly have all their links pointed somewhere else. A social network uses its own shortened link for stat tracking before sending you to a redirect, which now sends you to something about balloons, which…
…and so on. Most popular link shorteners have some failsafes built in; many will state that their links will never expire or alter, which is great news. If you’re curious as to how many potential URLs a shortening service might have available before people have to worry about reusing links, this link on Stack Overflow will prove handy.
Throwing an additional layer of complexity into the ring, there are services that offer time-limited shortened URLs; once they pass the expiration date, the shortened URL will no longer point to the original destination. Again, there is some room for ambiguity here—most services I’ve seen clearly state that the now-defunct shortened URL will not go back into the pool (to prevent unrelated final destinations showing up). At the same time, there’s a ton of generic, cookie-cutter sites offering similar services with no readily available information about link reuse.
Ultimately, regardless of the setup used, the link will be permanently broken should the original service go down and not return. If the service does return, but was purchased by someone up to no good, in theory all those links could be reactivated, except now they point to malware or exploits. On top of this, many people conscious of their personal security will choose to avoid shortened links due to not being able to see the final destination. Sure, you can use link lengtheners to see where you’re going, but for many that’s just too much work.
One way or another, we’re building a deliberate layer of impermanence over the top of theoretically stable links and content. This is such a problem that Internet Archive created 301Works back in 2009 to combat link rot caused by the flimsy structure we keep packing around the base of the Internet.
A helping hand…for someone else’s PageRank
Some services and opportunities have sprung up in the wake of the web wonkiness of link rot. Over the last year or so, we’ve noticed an uptick in emails from individuals or businesses letting us know that old links on our old blogs are dead. At this point, the oldest dated blog we’ve received a message about was from 2014, in relation to a long-dead Apple phish.
The email typically then goes on to suggest swapping out the old, dead link with their website instead, or (in some cases) offering an additional selection of SEO services for a fee. Some of them are persistent, too; two or three mails will go into the spam box before they stop sending. Here’s a snippet from one mail chain:
Generally speaking, you probably don’t want to go adding links to websites you’re not familiar with, as you’ve no idea what you’re directing your readers to. If the URL seems clean (aka not malicious), feel free to check it out and replace an old link in a still-relevant post. (Going through the work of replacing dead links in a practically dead blog hardly seems worth the effort, though.) Most folks likely won’t hire the first passing SEO expert through a random mailshot, either—a wise decision, as your own spam folder can probably attest.
Turning the tide
There are some ways to combat link rot, but ultimately the best defence we have is probably the various archives hoovering up portions of the net. Of course, there’s no guarantee the archives themselves will be online forever—but I have a feeling that when we reach the point where those are going under, we’ll probably have bigger things to worry about.
This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog post authored by Christopher Boyd. Read the original post at: Malwarebytes Labs