Death, Data and the Digital Hereafter

The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/Stuff.co.nz

The digital afterlife: thinking about what happens to our online life when we die. Image credit: Richard Parker/Stuff.co.nz

A soon-to-be-released science fiction movie, Transcendence, features Johnny Depp as a scientist who becomes immortalised as a digital entity – an event that is referred to by many as the Singularity. This is still rather far from reality, of course, but it did get me thinking about death and what happens to ‘our’ data – all those Facebook chats, Instagram photos and so on. I’m talking about the digital hereafter.

Your digital persona

It was around the turn of the millennium when I first started using the internet seriously (by which I mean how much time and energy I spent on the internet, not what I used it for). Back then, I spent my time online divided between MySpace, and plenty of forums. I certainly wasn’t thinking about a data backlog, or what would happen when I die. But as more and more of my life moved online, this has come to my attention as something not too many people think about. I don’t actually know, but I would guess that I have a profile at well over 200 websites, including social media sites, forums, retail and financial services, and any number of arbitrary web-apps that required me to sign up to use them just once.

My point is, as the internet has grown we have strewn our personal data far and wide across numerous websites, with little further thought for that data, sequestered in servers across the world. And in so doing, we have created a kind of avatar – a nebulous collection of data points in the cloud, that together makes up an online persona.

Your data after you die

Google, Facebook, and Twitter all have strategies to deal with accounts of the deceased – Facebook will ‘memorialise’ a profile if a family member can confirm the death of that person. This turns the profile of the deceased into a public memorial page, which won’t show status updates but still allows loved ones to post messages. Twitter just locks your information down, while Google has what they call the Inactive Account Manager – after a defined period of inactivity, Google will  transfer your data to a trusted contact and/or shut down your account. In general, it seems that the data will be made available to loved ones (or the courts) if absolutely necessary. Several companies have positioned themselves as managers of you digital legacy – covered in this blogpost. For a more in-depth discussion of digital estate planning, see this NY Times article published last year.

Now for some more outlandish options for the digital afterlife. Several companies have caught on to this opportunity, and are offering to immortalise your digital persona for posterity. Eterni.me promises to create a digital version of the deceased, which will continue to post status updates and send messages. The company will parse your data to create an virtual ‘you’ based on your likes, browsing history and previous social media messages. LivesOn is another such project, which promises to keep tweeting for you after you die. With taglines like ‘When your heart stops beating, you’ll keep tweeting. Welcome to your social afterlife.’ (LivesOn) or the frankly misleading ‘Simply Become Immortal’ (Eterni.me), these services are not for everybody. Personally, I find the idea of a dead loved one tweeting something inane rather distasteful, and I would be downright upset if a digital ghost started messaging me about the good times we had back when they were alive.

Corporates aren’t the only ones thinking quite seriously about this stuff – there is a website, The Digital Beyond, which has been started to discuss and document these issues. The owners of the site have also written a bookdiscussing one’s options for curating the digital remains of a loved one. Academia is getting in on the act, too:researchers in the UK are studying how Western public mourning practices are changing. They document massive growth in online mourning rituals, such as the aforementioned memorial pages on Facebook, blogs dedicated to the memory of loved ones, and so on.

Another way of dealing with digital remains

I would like to consider another aspect of this discussion, one which I have not seen discussed much: the value of that data as a public resource. Data has become the unofficial second currency of business in the 21st century – just look at mobile developers. They run at a loss for years, until someone will buy their captive audience from them as data for the great online advertising machine. As it stands, the digital remnants of a life belong to the company that owned that data to begin with. But I have a alternative suggestion, which would be massively useful if implemented correctly. What if, after a reasonable mourning period (call it five years to be safe), all of that data was parsed, anonymised, and made publicly available, for free? Think of the wealth of data that would represent, over the next few decades, or even centuries. Big Data is an overhyped topic right now, but we are already seeing it’s mark across the world. Think of the complex modelling and forecasting that would be possible. Think of the boost to academia, industry, commerce, financial services and even sport. And applied to humanitarian work in health or the environment, it would quite literally change the world.

Digital Files After Death, What Happens to Your Digital Legacy?

Have You Completed Your Client’s Digital Estate Plan?

I’m sure you are comfortable that your clients’ estate plans are up to date. But have you reviewed your client’s digital estate plan? What is a digital estate plan? It’s a plan for the disposition of all your clients internet accounts once he or she is deceased

Experts have estimated that the average adult with access to the internet has more than 25 internet accounts! In the past, we kept albums full of snapshots, vinyl records and shoeboxes full of correspondence. Now our photos are all on Flickr and IPhoto, our music is downloaded from ITunes and our correspondence is email via Yahoo or Google.

And probably more important than that, a lot of your clients bank and investment accounts may be entirely online.!

And what happens if your client dies? Who has access to these internet accounts? And if they want those accounts taken off the internet how do they do it? You may discover that it is more difficult than you think to access their accounts or erase them from the internet

The family of Ricky Rash, a 15 year old who committed suicide in 2011, discovered how difficult it was to recover information from their deceased son’s internet account. In an effort to understand why he had taken his own life, they requested but were refused access to his Facebook account. Facebook claimed that according to the Stored Communications Act of 1986 – the federal law that governs the protection of a person’s electronic data – even the account of a minor is protected from access by his parents or anyone else.  Other sites and providers interpret the legislation this way, making access all but impossible.

There are only five states that have taken any steps to help recover the internet data of a deceased person—Indiana, Idaho and Oklahoma legislation covers social media and blogging accounts, while Connecticut and Rhode Island legislation covers only email.

What does this mean for your clients? It is critical that they create a digital estate plan.The listing of internet accounts needs to be more comprehensive than I originally recommended. Information must include:

  • the name of the account
  • the contents of the account
  • the URL address
  • username
  • password
  • instructions for the disposition of the account including the person to oversee such disposition.
Digital planning
Digital planning

There is a whole new industry that has been created to service your clients’ digital estate , a new digital estate planning service. Your clients can create an account and then enter their user names, passwords and wishes for each of their digital assets. They can specify an heir for each account; Legacy Locker will provide heirs with information after the account holder’s death is verified.

There are also online memorial services to celebrate your client’s life. These services enable your clients to create their own memorials before they pass away. Facebook and Twitter also offer these services for family members.

The importance of having a digital estate plan will increase as more and more of our assets (and access to assets) are online. Gradually laws will evolve to give family members access to deceased loved ones’ accounts. It is important to prepare your clients for the disposition of their digital assets now so that family members will not be unpleasantly surprised when they attempt to uncover them.

If you want to explore digital estate planning in more detail feel free to wander around.

Identity Theft Safeguard

Do You and Your Aging Parents Have a Digital Estate Plan?

You may be comfortable that your have your estate plan in order. You have a will, a durable power of attorney, a living will and a health care proxy. But do you have a digital estate plan?

In the past, we kept albums full of snapshots, vinyl records and shoeboxes full of correspondence. Now our photos are all on Flickr and IPhoto, our music is downloaded from ITunes and our correspondence is email via Yahoo or Google. Naomi Cahn, a law professor at George Washington University, stated that most adults have 20-25 accounts on the internet. And many of those accounts are for banking or investments.

Have you given instructions to your family on what to do with your internet accounts if you should die? And do they even know how to access those accounts? User names, passwords, internet addresses?

The family of Ricky Rash, a 15 year old who committed suicide in 2011, discovered how difficult it was to recover information from their deceased son’s internet account. In an effort to understand why he had taken his own life, they requested but were refused access to his Facebook account.

Facebook claimed that according to the Stored Communications Act of 1986 – the federal law that governs the protection of a person’s electronic data – even the account of a minor is protected from access by his parents or anyone else.  Other sites and providers interpret the legislation this way, making access all but impossible.

There are only five states that have taken any steps to help recover the internet data of a deceased person—Indiana, Idaho and Oklahoma legislation covers social media and blogging accounts, while Connecticut and Rhode Island legislation covers only email.

What does this mean for you? It is critical that you create a digital estate plan. The listing of internet accounts needs to be comprehensive. Information must include:

  • the name of the account
  • the contents of the account
  • the URL address
  • username
  • password
  • instructions for the disposition of the account including the person to oversee such disposition.

Digital Files After Death, What Happens to Your Digital Legacy?

how to manage the digital legacy of the departed

In April, Google added to its services an Inactive Account Manager, which lets you designate an heir who will control your Google data when you die. You choose a length of inactivity, and if your accounts are ever quiet for that long, Google will notify your heirs that they’ve inherited access to your Gmail correspondence, YouTube videos or Picasa photo albums — whatever you specify.

It’s about time that Internet giants get in front of the privacy issue and offer users options for dealing with a digital legacy. After all, we live in an age where an increasing number of people make and share materials that live only in the digital world — nearly 50 percent of adult Internet users, for example, post homemade photos or videos online. A number of services can help with digital estate planning by designating password recipients or deleting accounts or files when you die. But communication and privacy laws have yet to catch up with technology. WhileFacebook made it possible for family members to convert the page of a loved one into a memorial a few years ago, the company has faced multiple lawsuits from family members who wanted deeper access to their kids’ Facebook accounts after a sudden death.

Clearly it’s important for people to consider who will have access and control over their digital data when the time comes. But this focus on privacy and access ignores the emotional significance of a loved one’s digital legacy.

“Right now the contemporary discussion is privacy and utility,” says Will Odom of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. “It’s not about how digital materials will be represented in any meaningful way.”

Think about how we interact with material heirlooms, items that are often deeply symbolic and sentimental. Your great-grandfather’s watch, an old photo album or stack of letters might be kept in special box on a high shelf or tucked in a particular drawer. We safeguard these items not just to remember the individual, but so future generations will know and remember too. And when the living ache to connect to the dead, it’s often in a ritualized setting: Letters might be read in a favorite chair with a glass of wine and a box of tissues. Photo albums are pulled out during holidays. We keep our relationships with lost loved ones alive by keeping their things.

Digital possessions — be they e-mails, texts, photos or tweets — are fundamentally different than tangible goods, says Odom, who has been investigating bereavement in the digital age. This makes digital materials particularly challenging to deal with after death. For one thing, there’s a matter of scale. Your house or apartment can contain only so many objects. People continuously get rid of tangible things as they acquire new ones, keeping only what’s important. But digital objects are spaceless. You don’t have to purge even if your inbox is bloated with thousands of unread e-mails. So it’s easy to end up with orders of magnitude more digital things than tangible ones. Digital objects are also oddly removed from view. While you can discern with a glance that the stacks of ancient National Geographic magazines in your parent’s attic are indeed stacks of ancient National Geographic magazines, you can’t tell what’s on a laptop and whether you want to keep that content just by looking at the laptop. This makes it especially difficult to make decisions about digital heirlooms.

“People end up in a weird holding pattern of keeping a phone or a desktop computer,” Odom says. “They want to keep it, but they are too overwhelmed to go into it.”

Recent studies by Odom and colleagues suggest that there may be something fundamental and ancient about how we interact with items left behind by the dead. While there currently aren’t easy ways to curate digital heirlooms, people sure do try. Many of the people the researchers interviewed were enacting similar rituals with digital objects that people use with material ones. One woman had 25 or so cherished text messages from her dead husband. She kept the SIM card and old phone in an ornate box and would take them out and read them from time to time. A woman from England buried her husband with his cell phone and kept sending him texts after he died.

Odom and his colleagues conclude that bereavement in the digital age might be easier if we had devices that allowed us to interact with digital objects in the same ways humans have interacted with heirlooms through the ages. As one woman who didn’t like the idea of storing special digital photos on a CD remarked: “They deserve better than that.”

Based on comments like that one, the researchers have designed three devices that display a deceased person’s photos, tweets and other digital heirlooms on screens embedded in oak veneer boxes. In tests, families said that they would want to keep the devices alongside their cherished physical heirlooms. As one mother put it: “Seeing it age with them — the things we’ll always have — it feels right.”

The importance of digital asset planning explained

Digital estate planning

“Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.” — Marlon Brando

Bricks and mortar businesses are inexorably coming to the realisation that a substantial amount of their business value is intangibly trapped in information. For online businesses, practically 100% of their assets are made up of information and the most valuable of all happens to be related to individuals. Information such as visitor, member, and client contact details are eagerly captured by online companies. The deeper and more detailed it gets, the better it is for the online enterprise. The ability to create an accurate client profile is true power and online businesses know it. They fight tooth and nail to attract new members, sign up subscribers and remain in front of as many contacts as possible. Individuals’ contact information and whatever other identity-related data they can cram into their customer databases is precious and allows them to put a value on their company, even if that value is largely theoretical.

If companies go through all this trouble to get data, would it not follow that their executives would rather part with their coveted reserved parking spots before they  consider allowing a single, hard-earned entry to be removed from their customer relationship management database? Absolutely! As long as the online businesses we deal with are subject to a privacy law based on the OECD data protection principles, we can count on the fact that limited retention is legislated and should expect our data to be purged from their systems after a ‘reasonable period of time’. What we should concern ourselves with is keeping track of all the data that is out there in detailed online and offline profiles. Social networking sites, email systems, other data sharing systems, e-commerce marketplaces and online auctions all try to build detailed profiles to allow for customisation of marketing messages, the likes of which deliver real value to online advertisers.

With the near complete penetration of the Internet across all age groups, we are increasingly likely to hear the term ‘digital estate planning’ (DEP) from tech-savvy lawyers. A search for this term yields a mere 70 hits on Google at the time of this writing, but give it a try in a year or two, and it be entrenched in the legal vernacular.

With our information now spread across dozens, perhaps hundreds of Internet sites and corresponding numbers of back-end databases, DEP is easier said than done. Social networking sites such as Facebook likely consider their early policy of ‘no deletion, only deactivation’ to have been a key driver of explosive growth as their user base shot past 100 million. Other sites that may have been more ethically inclined did not have the same opportunity to rekindle relationships with returning users. With global pressure to adopt data protection best practices, more and more firms are finding that they need to offer options for purging individual information from their systems.

The potentially vast amounts of information about deceased, Internet-active individuals may well turn into an insurmountable task for many, or an expensive task for a legal professional who wants to delve into DEP provisioning. Sites such as Hotmail, Yahoo! and Google all allow next-of-kin access to the deceased party’s information upon presentation of proof of death and proof of relationship, but a process needs to exist to manage all such related activities. Such a process can be based on a solid foundation of privacy legislation but, from the subject’s perspective, it must be consistent with existing best practices for password management and profile maintenance.

It is important to remember that information represents the building blocks of our identity and beyond the proper disposal of our data-based estate resides the very real threat of identity theft. That threat is real and has been for years. Husnain Kazmi is Vice President for Bank of America in Southern California. Kazmi says that in 2004 alone, some 400,000 checking accounts were reportedly opened in the US and millions of dollars in car loans were approved in the names of deceased individuals. This particularly effective type of identity theft is called ‘ghosting’ and most often occurs as a result of orphaned data being harvested by IT-savvy criminals looking to profit.

Governments need to step in and proactively install legislation that will protect citizens. Provinces in Canada, for example, are taking steps to establish privacy legislation around medical records. Many in the health care system view the legislation as crucial to the successful implementation of the Pan-Canadian Electronic Health Record (EHR) system under development across the country.

Following best practices is vital, but not enough. While the discussion is rather morbid, we must encourage clients and loved ones to exercise common sense when writing obituaries and safeguarding death certificates. Donald Kerr, Deputy Director of National Intelligence in America, is quoted as stating the following on the Office of the Director of Naval Intelligence website, “Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity; and it is an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture… but in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity – or the appearance of anonymity – is quickly becoming a thing of the past… we need to move beyond the construct that equates anonymity with privacy and focus more on how we can protect essential privacy in this interconnected environment. Protecting anonymity isn’t a fight that can be won. Anyone that’s typed in their name on Google understands that.”

We may all soon be in need of an internet-savvy, privacy aware, digital estate planner.