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.”

Digital death is still a problem. A widow’s battle to access her husband’s Apple account

Practical Problems for Planning and Management

  1. Unawareness. In order for the fiduciary to take steps essential to property handle the belongings of the property, the fiduciary has to pay attention to these belongings’ existence.
  2. Digital Bureaucracy. Many of the businesses that function custodians of digital media, accounts, and companies, have created some type of aid for the fiduciaries and the members of the family of the deceased. Unfortunately, as every firm is performing underneath the authorized restraints and uncertainty nonetheless surrounding the digital estate planning, there isn’t any uniformity in approaches chosen by every firm, which makes it tough to search out the suitable method and navigate by way of the procedures. The procedures a person should observe to entry the info pertaining to the deceased vary from sending a standard letter with a duplicate of a demise certificates, will, authorities IDs, private contact data, proof of relationship, and different verifying data of the deceased, to sending an electronic mail with sure data or proof of being appointed a fiduciary, to filling out an internet type with no further verification. Apart from time delay, a few of these approaches add a considerable quantity of paperwork.
  3. Passwords and PIN Codes. Passwords are the important thing to entry our many units and recordsdata. Our telephones are password protected, our computer systems and emails are password protected, all of our on-line monetary accounts are password protected, and even now our flash drives will be password protected. Without entry to the passwords, the Digital Assets saved in these gadgets and in these on-line areas are of lowered if any worth.
  4. Encryption. 32-bit, sixty four-bit, 128-bit, and 256-bit encryption are all ranges of encryption used to additional safe domestically or remotely saved information, or knowledge that’s being transported on-line from a service supplier to your pc or cellphone. Fiduciaries who’re unable to seek out, guess or in any other case use passwords to open secured accounts are left with the choice of attempting to interrupt the encryption that secures the digital asset. However, that is simpler mentioned than executed! As reported by Seagate, a number one expertise firm, in 2008, a file encrypted with 128-bit AES encryption has over 340,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 potential mixtures, or sufficient to maintain 70 billion computer systems busy computing for over seventy seven billion years at 2008 computing speeds to guess the right key to unlock the encryption. With this in thoughts, cracking or guess in password appears a complete lot extra life like than cracking the encryption. In case you had been questioning, it’s believed that the present 256 AES encryption will be ample encryption safety till roughly the yr 2031, when pc will be quick sufficient that this degree of encryption will now not be robust sufficient.
  5. CFAA Criminal Laws. As famous above, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act stands in the way in which of Fiduciaries who try and entry on-line accounts with out acceptable authorization.
  6. SCA Privacy legal guidelines. As famous above, the Stored Communications Act prohibits the disclosure of a shopper’s electronically saved info until the fiduciary meets one of many listed exemptions, and even then the service supplier might chorus from disclosing the knowledge or granting entry to the saved info.