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.

Don't Let Your Digital Assets Die With You

Digital Estate Planning Law

The May 2013 issue of the Internet Law Researcher newsletter (which is available to members of the Duke Law community through Westlaw‘s GLILR database) rounds up a bibliography of legislation and articles related to digital asset estate planning. To locate the article in Westlaw Classic or WestlawNext, use the citation 18 No. 5 Internet L. Researcher 1.

Planning for death has always been an uncomfortable and difficult topic for most people, and the growth of social media and other online accounts has added a new layer of complexity to sorting out the affairs of the recently deceased. Author Ken Kozlowski describes the current situation as “a big mess” in which “the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) [is] being cited as a reason for services such as Facebook to withhold access to deceased individuals’ accounts, passwords, stored photos, etc.” Five states have passed legislation related to control of deceased individuals’ online accounts, and undoubtedly more state legislatures will follow suit.

The Internet Law Researcher article recommends a number of publications from legal and mainstream sources, including the recent law review student note by Maria Perrone, What Happens When We Die: Estate Planning of Digital Assets, and the blog Digital Passing. The recommended resources offer tips for developing a plan to handle digital assets after death, and serve as a good supplement to the Goodson Law Library’s collection of estate planning guides, most of which do not discuss digital assets in detail.

Identity Theft Safeguard

What Does Managing a Loved One’s Digital Legacy Look Like?

With digital privacy in the media spotlight and digital estate planning resources entering our mainstream consciousness, many of us have been inspired to think about the end of life and our online selves. And we should. Hundreds of thousands of Facebook users die each year, the average American believes that she has almost $55,000 worth of digital assets, though most of us — 70 percent — don’t even have a will, and few states have laws governing what happens to our internet accounts when we die. The sheer magnitude of our digital lives can overwhelm us into inaction, thus we need real life inspiration. What does managing a loved one’s digital legacy really look like?

Digital planning
Digital planning

Meet Courtney.* She represents the average family caregiver: 34 years old, a full-time nurse, mother to a pre-teen daughter, with a half-brother who lives several states away and a younger brother in the military. Like many Americans, she lives on-line, utilizing at least 25 password-protected sites on different computers and a smart phone, where she stores and shares the vulnerable, mundane, and whimsical in her life while connecting to family and friends. Before her mother’s illness, she had thought little of her own digital assets, let alone those of anyone else. When she joined the one-third of the US population who provides care for an ill, disabled, or aged person — two thirds of whom are women, shepherding her terminally ill mother’s online presence in life and after her death became very important. We use Courtney’s story to give us a glimpse into the questions, tasks, unexpected dilemmas, and benefits that await us in caring and grieving in the digital age.

The news that her 58-year-old mother faced terminal cancer shocked Courtney and propelled her into caregiving action. Drawing on her nursing background and love of organization, Courtney created spreadsheets to track her mother’s medications and the signs and symptoms of her disease. She and her mother searched disease progression and treatment options on-line, making lists of questions for her doctors and finding support groups. Courtney also began a private blog, tracing her mother’s stays in the hospital, and she treasures pictures stored on her phone of her mother’s last Halloween, hospitalized but still trick-or-treating at the nurses’ station.

As her mother’s condition declined, Courtney realized that her own comfort level with sharing her personal story through digital media and her mother’s were different, and her mother’s wishes took precedent over her own. For example, she considered using a caregiving site likeCaringBridge to help her mobilize support, but her mother’s wishes for a high level of privacy during her illness meant private e-mail messages and texting were best. Before her mother’s illness, Courtney shared her life’s ups and downs regularly on Facebook and Twitter, but now she tried to follow general digital etiquette advice as best she could, speaking only from her perspective as a daughter, refraining from telling her mother’s story without her permission. Most of the time, though, she found herself too exhausted to share anything and used Facebook to unwind, living vicariously through the pictures, status updates, and tweets of her friends.

Courtney soon realized that she did not know what digital accounts her mother had, let alone what she would want done with them in the future. On one of her mother’s stronger days, they sat down to begin sorting through her digital life together. Clicking through her mother’s Shutterfly, Pinterest, ITunes and Facebook accounts became an opportunity for reminiscing. Because most digital accounts are non-transferrable, they decided what material needed to be saved to her computer’s hard drive, which accounts to close, and which accounts to leave active, like her Facebook page which she still enjoyed using to keep up on her distant grandkids and childhood friends.

Because of her mother’s wishes for privacy, Courtney was surprised when her phone began buzzing non-stop soon after her mother died:

It was weird, because I’d only told a few people that she was dying. I learned that a family friend had been posting detailed updates about my mother’s last moments, and never checked with us about whether we wanted privacy and time. I was very hurt by that. I just felt like the world needed to stop.

Upset that her brothers might learn of their mom’s death on Facebook and not from their sister, she called them immediately. For several days, Courtney tried logging in to her social media accounts, but seeing her mother referred to in the past tense overwhelmed her. She wanted to scream to her well-meaning friends, “I am not ready for my mother to be a “was” yet!” Courtney turned off her phone and asked her best friend to become her family’s informal digital proxy by posting updates from the family on Courtney’s Facebook page, including logistical information about the funeral service and burial. In turn, her friend shared with Courtney the many appreciative comments about her mother’s life from social media sites and from the on-line guest book for her mother’s obituary.

Inevitably, time passed, and Courtney began the long journey of grief, incorporating the death of her mother into her own life story, gaining narrative resilience word by word, click by click. Through Facebook, she gained access to memories and stories from the geographically dispersed group of her mom’s friends, even learning from them how much her mom appreciated the sacrifices she had made to care for her. She still views her mom’s Pinterest board, savoring those unique ideas and dreams. Courtney and her brothers have committed to weekly Skype dates, where they check in and stay connected as they each grieve their mom in their own ways. They have already taken the step of memorializing their mother’s Facebook page, mostly to have closure and to ensure her privacy will be protected.

Courtney’s story reminds us that even if we personally plan for the management and bequeathal of our digital assets and story, a trusted loved one will be the one to carry out our wishes. Some families could benefit from legal counsel, but much can be done informally, as we saw with Courtney’s family. The critical first step is recognizing how digital assets can both provide support and — paradoxically — overwhelm without careful management. The next step is deciding how best to use those assets.

Like Courtney, daughters will most likely be the ones to initiate the conversation, but not all of us will have the luxury of time and ability to talk about what we wish. The time to plan for our digital legacy, both assets and story, is now. Far surpassing any monetary value, our digital narrative assets hold tremendous sentimental value for those who will find comfort and meaning from our cloud of digital witnesses.

*Courtney’s name has been changed to protect her privacy. She represents one of the Gen X interview cohort interviewed by Amy Ziettlow and Elizabeth Marquardt for a forthcoming book on 21st century caregiving and grief.

Learn How to Preserve Your Data with Take Control of Your Digital Legacy

US digital legacy laws in 2013

New Hampshire recently gave some thoughts about what happens to your facebook page when you die. More precisely, legislation is being changed so that an estate executor would be in a position to get a hold on the different social networks, emails, … after the death of the owner – which is something that is not the custom today.

Peter Sullivan is the State Rep. who started the movement of digital estate planning in the New Hampshire House of Representatives, which accepted this bill 222 to 128. The goal of these legislation is namely to give a better control of the situation to the persons who just suffered from a loss.

The other states so far are Rhode Island, Connecticut, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Indiana. The first and the second were the first states to introduce a control of digital legacy, but at the same time only applied on a limited number of services. Oklahoma was supported by a state legislator, Ryan Kiesel. Kiesel helped draft the texts, but according to his own advice, the issue must be addressed to by the federal government.

 

Let’s have a quick look at the different states and statuses. Here are attached links to the different texts concerning the current laws (as of beginning of 2013).

 

Rhode Island: The legislation simply allows an executor to access the accounts of emails of the departed.

Source: http://webserver.rilin.state.ri.us/Statutes/TITLE33/33-27/33-27-3.htm

 

Connecticut : The same applies – and still the question of social networks is not raised.

Source: http://www.cga.ct.gov/2005/act/Pa/2005PA-00136-R00SB-00262-PA.htm

 

Indiana: The executor can be granted access to “information being stored online”.

Source: http://www.in.gov/legislative/ic/code/title29/ar1/ch13.html

 

Okhlahoma: The text gives the executor (or an estate administrator) the right to be granted the access to emails, as well as social networks, accounts.

Source: http://legiscan.com/OK/bill/HB2800/2010

 

Idaho: The Idaho text allows the executor to take over and control the account of the decedent, including the Facebook, Twitter, as well as any email provider. The major difference resides in the fact that the executor can resume the use of the account, even on a posthumous base.

Source: http://legislature.idaho.gov/legislation/2011/S1044.pdf