Human fascination with immortality stretches back to the time of Greek mythology with history littered by charlatans, oddballs and megalomaniacs either claiming or seeking the secret to eternal life.
However, the modern tech-savvy generation has discovered, quite by chance, that an immortality of sorts is now freely available via the digital footprint they leave should they meet an untimely end. It’s estimated that on Facebook alone, more than 30 million accounts belong to people who are deceased.
As if the pain of coping with the death of a loved one isn’t difficult enough, friends and family must now consider the implications of the deceased’s online life to go with their material existence.
Your online footprint
Think for a moment about your own digital presence. You’ll almost certainly use online banking and shopping facilities, perhaps an online wallet like PayPal, email accounts, a frequent flyer program, a social media presence via Facebook or Twitter, along with potentially thousands of personal files, receipts and photographs.
Most people already understand the importance of estate planning to help pass on worldly goods such as housing, savings and mementos to their beneficiaries. But how will your heirs even gain access to your computer and your passwords?
Like so many laws relating to the digital world, many are outdated or irrelevant, and several online services have already established their own policies. For instance, Twitter allows family or friends to download a copy of your public tweets and close your account. You need to nominate someone in advance to provide their name and contact details, their relationship to you, your Twitter username and a link to or copy of your obituary.
No laws currently exist in Australia to grant a Will’s executor automatic access to someone’s social media accounts. However, there are still several options available to help decide on how your online legacy is managed.
The first step is to create a Digital Will. In addition, you will need to select a trustworthy digital executor to handle arrangements for your digital assets and digital legacy once you are gone. Similarly, if you run your own business, it will have its own digital incarnation and its own digital legacy to maintain. Some Australian Will makers offer Digital Wills so people can ensure their online legacy lives on – or fades away – in accordance with their wishes.
Online vaults for safe storage
An increasingly popular alternative is to store important documents and passwords in an online vault. The likes of SecureSafe, Legacy Lockboxor Assets in Order pledge to provide secure online storage of passwords and documents.
Password management accounts can be set up using software such as Norton Identity Safe while Google recently introduced a new program called Inactive Account Manager, which enables you to choose in advance exactly what you wish to have done with all your Google data – from Gmail accounts to YouTube videos.
Considering how much of our communication takes place online these days, it’s worth investing some time thinking about your digital footprint and what is required to manage it when you’re gone. A good time to do this might be when next reviewing your Wills and Powers of Attorney. With a little thought and preparation, you can leave a lasting legacy to your loved ones, well beyond photos or videos, and avoid complications associated with your ‘digital immortality’.
Imagine getting a notification from your smartphone that you have a text from your father on your birthday.
That’s not a big deal … unless your father had died years ago.
It may sound kind of creepy, but it could be normal in the future.
A company called SwonSong is entering the market of digital legacy solutions. The app will give its users the ability to record and save video clips, audio clips or written messages and schedule when to have them delivered.
Want to wish Junior a happy birthday in 2040 when you’re long gone? You can do that with the app. SwonSong is looking for funding to help finish coding work needed to make it available for iOS and Android devices by the fall.
“I got the idea for the app when I lost my own mother to dementia,” said David Lamonby, one of SwonSong’s co-creators, in a release. “It was heart-breaking to see the person I loved and knew so well gradually fade away and be replaced by another desperately unhappy person. This app would have allowed her to record message when she was healthy and before the illness totally changed her personality and eventually took her from us.”
If this technology had been around in the late 1950s, I may have heard from my father’s dad, who died when my father was just 12 years old. I’ve always been curious about what he sounded like and what kind of personality he had. It would be neat to compare him to my father and see if they have similar quirks. My grandpa Jim would have a spot at my “invite any three people to dinner” question.
Technology makes it easier than ever to reach out to our loved ones in the afterlife. We’ve all seen TV shows or movies where people sit around a lawyer’s office and the lawyer pops in a VHS tape or DVD to hear the dead person read the will to loved ones gathered.
Now, you can just schedule an email, attach your self-made video to a file and save the hassle of going to an office to tell them what they’re getting from you.
Thanks to the explosion of social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, many of us have rather large digital legacies to handle once we die. For many years, a person’s social media accounts were basically frozen when they died. Facebook integrated a “legacy contact” feature in February that lets users designate someone to post a final message and manage the page once the user has died.
Choosing a digital executor in legal wills is a new phenomenon as well. A Harris Poll showed 70 percent of those who responded have no digital executor. More than half of those who had no digital executor didn’t know they needed one, and 39 percent assumed their family could just go in and change their accounts. A little more than half of those with social media accounts said they would want them deleted after death.
I’ll keep my social media going long after I’m gone and schedule videos to be posted to help my friends and family remember me. I’ll even make a special message to have posted if the Cubs win the World Series to congratulate their fans for sticking it out over the centuries.
When approaching the difficult task of accessing websites and online accounts, dealing with it is divided between two options: having the password or not having the password.
If you have a password – you can get in
If you don’t have a password, but have access to an e-mail account, in most of the websites you could click on “I forgot my password” and a link will be sent by e-mail, to create a new password. Once you have created it, you can get into the website / account
If you haveneither a password nor access to an e-mail account, the dealings get more complicated, because they involve approaching the online services providers. Some are already set for dealing with death of clients and present clear policies and guidelines in this regard, but some are still grappling with it or have done so until recently. Twitter, for instance, published their policy only in August 2010.
Another element you’ll need to take into consideration is TIME. In certain cases, only a narrow window of time is available through which you could take care of the deceased’s digital legacy:
On facebook, for instance, at any moment someone might turn his or her profile into a memorial profile (your consent isn’t required and you’ll find yourselves locked out of the account – even if you have a valid password). Therefore, the first thing I recommend you do is download a copy of the profile’s content (for “how to” scroll down, under “Facebook”).
Sometimes you’ll have access to accounts only for a limited amount of time: if the deceased passed away while his / her smartphone / tablet / laptop / computer was still logged on, you would still have access through this device to his or her online accounts. But eventually you’ll be prompted to re-enter the passwords, and when you can’t provide one, you’ll be locked out of these accounts. Therefore, I recommend you take advantage of this access while you have it, and set as many new passwords as you can, to ensure you have independent access to the accounts – at least to begin with. Maybe later on you’ll decide to close the accounts, or not to go into them, but at least you’ll have a choice.
I know you already have so much to handle after the death of a loved one, and maybe his or her digital legacy doesn’t strike you as urgent, but unfortunately, by the time you do get around to dealing with it, it’ll be too late, and invaluable, precious data will be permanently lost – in a way which cannot be restored.
Entrustet used to have a wonderful blog, and in it a “Digital Executor Toolbox” could be found. Unfortunately, when Entrusted was purchased by SecureSafe, the blog went offline, which is a pity. It used to have useful information about how to close online accounts and delete digital assets after the user has passed away. I hope it will go online again. In the meanwhile, I have compiled a list here for your convenience. A click on each link will take you to the relevant page of the online service provider. International companies (Israeli companies listed below)
“If an individual has passed away and you need access to the contents of his or her email account, in rare cases wemaybe able to provide the Gmail account content to an authorized representative of the deceased user. …. Any decision to provide the contents of a deceased user’s email will be made only after a careful review, and the application to obtain email content is a lengthy process. Before you begin, please understand that Google may be unable to provide the Gmail account content….”
Between the time I wrote this post as a draft and print-screened this page and the time I published this post, YouTube took their policy offline. Right now there isn’t an online policy regarding a deceased YouTube member’s account. I’ve sent YouTube a query about this and will update this post once I have news.
“The Microsoft Next of Kin process allows for the release of Hotmail contents, including all emails and their attachments, address book, and Messenger contact list, to the next of kin of a deceased or incapacitated account holder and/or closure of the Hotmail account, following a short authentication process. We cannot provide you with the password to the account or change the password on the account, and we cannot transfer ownership of the account to the next of kin. Account contents are released by way of a data DVD which is shipped to you.”
“To close the account of a deceased LinkedIn member you’ll need to submit a Verification of Death form. Note: This form requires an email address registered to the deceased member’s account. Without this important piece of information, we will not be able to address your request.”
This used to be MySpace’s policy, but they updated it in July 2012:
“We will only remove or preserve the profile of a deceased user at the request of the next of kin or at the request of the executor of the estate. Myspace will not allow access or update the log-in information for a profile for any circumstance… However, if you have access to the email account tied to the Myspace profile, you can retrieve the password by clicking www.myspace.com/auth/resetpassword“.
“In order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone.”
My advice is: if you have access to the Facebook account of your loved one who passed away, the first thing you should do is download a copy of it (General Account Settings > Download a copy). If someone were to notify Facebook that the account owner has passed away, Facebook will block all access to the profile and you will not be able to get in – even if you do have the password. Facebook’s policy is controversial: anyone can notify that a person has passed away, not just members of his immediate family. Hence, the spouse / child / parent might suddenly find themselves with the profile turning into a deceased person’s profile, without their request. Once a profile is “memorized”, as they call it, only friends can see it and locate it in search results see update below, and some of the content disappears while some of it remains – and you have no control over it. Very little information is required in order to report someone as gone: Report a Deceased Person’s Profile
Following John Berlin’s appeal to see the ‘Look Back’ video of his deceased son, Jesse Berlin, Facebook now allows members of a deceased user to watch his or her ‘Look Back’ video. Please note: a request to see a Look Back video of a user who passed away equals a request to memoralize the account, even if this wasn’t your intention, so please make sure you understand the consequences of your act before making this request. If you are certain you wish for his or her account to be momoralized, or if the account is already memoralized, you can make the request here. Thank youDamien McCallig for highlighting this point.
Facebook took this opportunity to also change the privacy settings of memoralized accounts: from now on, the content will remain visible as the owner defined it while he/she was still alive. Meaning: if certain content was made visible publiclicly, it will remain so. If certain content was made visible to friends of friends, it will remain so – unlike what the policy was up until now: that once an account was memoralized, all the content was visible to friends only.
A word about Facebook‘s policy of memorializing an account: Of course this is very personal, but I think and feel it is better to keep “running into” my dead brother’s profile on Facebook as if he were still alive, than to have his profile declared as a profile of a dead person. I do not wish for certain content out of his profile to disappear, as it will disappear without any of us having a say about what stays and what disappears – it is determined by Facebook’s policy only.
Ever since my brother was killed, he has received hundreds of friendship requests, and as far as I can tell, all are by people who realize he is dead. I am puzzled by this: Is it their initiative, or in response to Facebook suggesting him as a possible friend? Is it their way of showing their respect to him? Their way of expressing their sorrow over missing out the opportunity to be his friends while he was still alive? Do they expect their request of friendship to be accepted? Is there a bit of voyeurism in it – to see which content they will be granted access to as friends, that they couldn’t see before? How would they feel if “he” will suddenly approve their request, since it will be clear it was not done by him but by a family member?
Since approving a friendship request grants access to certain content which only friends can see, I feel no one has the right or authority to approve friendship requests but the deceased.
None of the Israeli companies publish their policy regarding death of a client online. I gathered the following information from each one as a service to the readers of this blog. Walla!
Walla! will grant you the password to the mailbox as soon as you follow their clear policy in this regard. Email them at: firstname.lastname@example.org and ask for a copy of their instructions in English (In a nutshell, you will need to provide both proof of death and proof of your relation to the deceased). You should contact them as soon as you can: an e-mail account that hasn’t been used in 3 months might be closed by the company. 012 Smile
Unfortunately, there is no point in contacting this company. They will only grant access to the e-mail under court order. Contact your lawyer instead. Bezeq International
You can notify Bezeq International someone has passed away either by phone: *3014 or by chat with a customer service representative. You will only need to supply the ID number and the last fourdigits of the method of payment of the deceased, and they will give you the e-mail password. You will need to provide a copy of a death certificate, oddly enough, not in order to gain access to the e-mail account, but in order to receive a refund for unused Internet services.
If you wish to keep the e-mail active, you can do so: the first 6 months for free, and from the 7th months onward by paying 9.90 NIS per month. TheMarker Cafe
You can notify TheMarker Cafe by phone 03-5133697 or e-mail email@example.com, but they will only grant access to the account under court order. 013 Netvision
You can notify Netvision by phone: *3013 or by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. As soon as you present a copy of the death certificate, ID number and last four digits of method of payment, you will be granted full access to all the services the deceased was subscribed to – including e-mail and cloud backup. This is relevant however only if they had a private account. If they had a business account, only the owner of the company can contact Netvision, or the person registered at Netvision as the contact person for the company the deceased person worked for. Tapuz
You will have to have a Hebrew speaking person next to you, as Tapuz can only be contacted by a Hebrew form in their website. They will only assist you in gaining access to the account if you have access to the e-mail address that the person who passed away registered with. If you don’t, they will assist you only if there is a legal cause for it, or under court order. Isra-Blog
Isra-Blog is part of Nana10 and can be notified about a death of a blogger by e-mail: email@example.com. They don’t have a consistent policy: in some cases, the blog will be taken offline. In other cases, a family member will be granted access to it – depending, among other factors, on the family wishes. Nana10
You can contact Nana10 by e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, but access to the mailbox will only be granted under court order.
What is so frustrating about the long, complex dealings with the various Internet providers and their different policies – which includes heartache and helplessness – is that the people left behind after the death could have easily been spared all that – if only the deceased had left their usernames and passwords behind. They could have accessed their accounts without the provider ever knowing the user was dead. Several products (some of them for free) offer this exact service: keeping track of websites, user names and passwords, along with instructions of who may access what, are detailed in this post: Managing Your Digital Legacy.
In Recognition of Make-a-Will Month, New Rocket Lawyer Survey Reveals 82 Percent of Americans Who Have a Will and Have Any Digital Assets Don’t Have a Digital Executor and 64 Percent of Americans Still Don’t Have a Will
SAN FRANCISCO, CA–(Marketwired – Apr 21, 2015) – Social media sites recently released new estate executor policies, shining light on a new reality — estate management now requires plans for the “digital afterlife.” This Make-a-Will Month, Rocket Lawyer commissioned an online survey by Harris Poll among over 2,000 Americans to uncover how people are preparing for the unknown — whether they’re creating a customary Last Will and Testament, or appointing modern digital legacy contacts. New data revealed that 64 percent of Americans still don’t have a Will, and while 86 percent of those who have a will indicate they have digital assets, less than 13 percent of those with digital assets have appointed a digital executor.
“People don’t think twice about uploading sentimental, valuable and confidential information online, yet their Wills often only cover their tangible possessions, said Charley Moore, Rocket Lawyer Founder and CEO. Modern estate planning needs to consider all of the legal ramifications, from protecting loved ones and children, to preserving Facebook timelines, allocating iTunes libraries and protecting bank accounts.”
Digital Assets Falling to the Wayside A digital executor is a person that people appoint to manage their digital assets after they die, from social media accounts, to bank information and content libraries, like iTunes and Amazon. While a small number of Americans (36 percent) already have a Will in place, 70 percent of those who have a Will have not appointed a digital executor, leaving their online wealth susceptible to legal risks.
Americans’ opinions of how to manage the online estate aspects of their Wills are also divided. Thirty percent reported that they dislike new ‘legacy executor’ policies incorporated by social media sites, while 38 percent like them, and 32 percent are undecided. The findings uncovered a rift in how users would choose to protect their digital assets — 51 percent of those who have any social media accounts would want their accounts deleted by their ‘legacy contacts,’ 31 percent would want them to memorialize their accounts and 29 percent would prefer to archive their accounts, so the executor would only be able to downloaded photos, posts and profile information.
The Avoidance Factor Sixty percent of Americans without a Will indicated that they simply haven’t gotten around to making one yet, and over one-fourth (27 percent) don’t feel that it’s urgent. The number one reason that Americans with a Will have not appointed a digital executor is because they were unaware that a separate one was needed (54 percent). Thinking about estate planning requires some difficult decisions, but it’s important that people take legal measures to protect their legacies and ensure their most valuable assets are maintained.
Additional findings from the survey include:
70 percent of Americans aged 45-54 do not have a Will, and 54% of Americans aged 55-64 do not have a Will
39 percent of Americans who have a Will and have not appointed a digital executor assumed their family and loved ones would be able to access, manage or delete their digital assets (which legally, is not often the case)
33 percent of Americans who have a Will and have not appointed a digital executor didn’t know they could protect their digital assets in their Will
33 percent of Americans who have a Will and have not appointed a digital executor had not even considered what would happen to their digital assets after death
69 percent of Americans say the digital assets that would be most important to protect in the case of their death would be their online banking and financial accounts (69 percent), followed by email accounts (33 percent), eCommerce accounts (15 percent) and social media accounts (13 percent)
Planning for the Unknown Estate planning is necessary for people to unburden their loved ones after their demise. As our lives are becoming increasingly more digital, it’s important for Americans to plan accordingly and consider the virtual components that they want to protect.
This Make-a-Will month, Rocket Lawyer is encouraging everyone to take the time to make an estate plan. According to the survey, 18 percent of Americans who don’t have a Will say it’s because they don’t have a lawyer, and 14 percent believe it costs too much. It’s simple and free to create a step-by-step Last Will with Rocket Lawyer. For those who need customized guidance from an attorney — such as people with dependent children, real estate, significant assets or ownership in a business — it’s easy and affordable to talk to a lawyer with Rocket Lawyer On Call® and get the legal guidance they need.
About Rocket Lawyer™ At Rocket Lawyer, we believe everyone deserves affordable and simple legal services. Since 2008 we’ve helped over 20 million families and small businesses take care of their legal matters so they can focus on what really matters. From free legal documents and businessincorporation to discounted rates with outstanding attorneys, we’re there to help every step of the way. For more information on Rocket Lawyer, please visit http://www.rocketlawyer.com and follow Rocket Lawyer on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
About The Harris Poll Over the last 5 decades, Harris Polls have become media staples. With comprehensive experience and precise technique in public opinion polling, along with a proven track record of uncovering consumer motivations and behaviors, The Harris Poll has gained strong brand recognition around the world. The Harris Poll offers a diverse portfolio of proprietary client solutions to transform relevant insights into actionable foresight for a wide range of industries including healthcare, technology, public affairs, energy, telecommunications, financial services, insurance, media, retail, restaurant, and consumer packaged goods. Contact us for more information.
Survey Methodology This survey was conducted online within the United States by Harris Poll on behalf of Rocket Lawyer from March 31-April 2, 2015 among 2,009 adults ages 18 and older, among which 787 have a Will, 663 have any digital assets, and 551 have a will and have not appointed a digital executor. This online survey is not based on a probability sample and therefore no estimate of theoretical sampling error can be calculated. For complete survey methodology, including weighting variables, please contact rocketlawyer (at) highwirepr.com.
Digital Limbo: Rocket Lawyer Uncovers How Americans Are (or Aren’t) Protecting Their Digital Legacies
You might have thought about what will happen to your Facebook profile or blog when you die, and maybe even toyed with the idea of passing them on after you’re gone. But what about that old OkCupid account you don’t want people snooping around in, or the Pornhub subscription you’d rather died with you?
Over the last few years a number of companies have popped up to help people manage “digital legacies.” These companies work as repositories for their customers’ usernames and passwords; when you pass away, they’ll try to make sure your loved ones get hold of your latent digital assets, like emails, social network profiles, or e-commerce accounts.
But some also offer the possibility to close down the accounts that you don’t wish to pass on to your loved ones.
“Like with a real legacy, you can decide who will receive each digital asset, or you can just mark the things you don’t want your family to access, and your legacy executor will take the steps to remove them,” Paul Golding, CEO of UK-based digital legacy company Cirrus, told me on the phone.
One of the pioneer ventures in the field, Entrustet, which was acquired in 2012 by the security corporation SecureSafe, introduced what it dubbed the “Account Incinerator” to achieve the same goal.
Yet digital executors are still the reserve of early adopters or tech geeks. One company, Legacy Locker, claimed to have about 10,000 subscribers in 2011. Not bad, but that’s just a drop in the ocean compared to Facebook, which now has a self-reported 829 million daily users—thousands of which die every day.
For those of us who don’t leave behind some sort of digital will, what happens to our posthumous cyber-lives will largely depend on what other people decide to do with them.
Among social networks, Facebook perhaps has the most defined “death policy,” but it also seems the most steadfast in privileging post-death persistence over after-life oblivion. When a user dies, family members can ask Facebook to remove the profile by presenting documentation such as a death certificate. Alternatively, they will transform the profile into a memorial page for e-mourning of the lost loved one.
This feature may end up radically changing Mark Zuckerberg’s social network: the website What If estimated that, all things being equal, dead users (among memorialised and non-removed dead people’s pages) will surpass live ones by the 2060s or mid-2100s, depending on how long the site stays popular.
Twitter and LinkedIn have similar policies: they don’t provide memorialisation, but they’ll remove the profiles at the request of a friend, relative, or colleague of the deceased user. (You may resolve to keep tweeting from the grave via applications like LIVESON, but that’s another story.)
Google offers users some control over the thorny issue of digital death by dint of a feature called Inactive Manager Account. By activating it, users can decide that their account will be shut down or transferred to a trusted person after a given period of time.
Pretty much all the other systems hinge on the premise that somebody else will reach out to give dead avatars a deserved burial. That may not always be possible, for example if the dead user’s family don’t know they hold certain accounts, or aren’t tech-savvy enough to deal with them.
The accounts of dead people are therefore likely to keep existing, silent, in a digital limbo.
Facebook is only ten years old, and its persistence 50 years from now can’t be taken for granted, even if your late presence is clinging on.
Rather than major social networks, it’s likely that more specific digital venues will risk becoming virtual cemeteries in the long run, as families are probably less likely to know that their relatives are subscribed to them. And sometimes the ghosts will stick around where you least expect.
Take video games. In June, a YouTube commenter shared a moving story about accidentally stumbling on his deceased father while playing a rally game on Xbox: every time that he raced, the “ghost car” of his dad (who had established a record time), would drive alongside him.
If you consider the fact that many MMORPG games don’t delete players’ avatars even after years of inactivity, it leaves the door open for a scenario where legions of virtual personas could outlive their flesh-and-blood creators.
But while it might be tricky to make sure your digital self dies with you, there’s another thing to take into consideration: It’s unlikely that most of the websites and social media we’re talking about will survive for that long. Facebook is only ten years old, and its persistence 50 years from now can’t be taken for granted, even if your late presence is clinging on.
And that may in fact be the bigger problem. While you may worry about leaving certain traces, historians are concerned that the data we store in social networks may be destroyed in the perpetual creation/destruction cycle that characterizes the digital era. This could wind up depriving future researchers of key information to make sense of our age.
So even if you hope for your digital self to die once and for all, others may be rushing to preserve the breadcrumbs of data that said something about your digital life.