What happens to our online identities when we die?

What happens to our online identities when we die?

What happens to our online identities when we die?

Click here to view original web page at What happens to our online identities when we die?

Hayley Atwell in the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back.

Esther Earl never meant to tweet after she died. On 25 August 2010, the 16-year-old internet vlogger died after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. In her early teens, Esther had gained a loyal following online, where she posted about her love of Harry Potter, and her illness. Then, on 18 February 2011 – six months after her death – Esther posted a message on her Twitter account, @crazycrayon.

“It’s currently Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts,” she wrote, adding an emoji of a smiling face in sunglasses. Her mother, Lori Earl from Massachusetts, tells me Esther’s online friends were “freaked out” by the tweet.

“I’d say they found her tweet jarring because it was unexpected,” she says. Earl doesn’t know which service her daughter used to schedule the tweet a year in advance, but believes it was intended for herself, not for loved ones after her death. “She hoped she would receive her own messages … [it showed] her hopes and longings to still be living, to hold on to life.”

Although Esther did not intend her tweet to be a posthumous message for her family, a host of services now encourage people to plan their online afterlives. Want to post on social media and communicate with your friends after death? There are lots of apps for that! Replika and Eternime are artificially intelligent chatbots that can imitate your speech for loved ones after you die; GoneNotGone enables you to send emails from the grave; and DeadSocial’s “goodbye tool” allows you to “tell your friends and family that you have died”. In season two, episode one of Black Mirror, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence – what was once the subject of a dystopian 44-minute fantasy is nearing reality.

Esther Earl at home in 2010 … before she died, she arranged for emails to be sent to her imagined future self.
Esther Earl at home in 2010 … before she died, she arranged for emails to be sent to her imagined future self. Photograph: Boston Globe via Getty Images

But although Charlie Brooker portrayed the digital afterlife as something twisted, in reality online legacies can be comforting for the bereaved. Esther Earl used a service called FutureMe to send emails to herself, stating that her parents should read them if she died. Three months after Esther’s death, her mother received one of these emails. “They were seismically powerful,” she says. “That letter made us weep, but also brought us great comfort – I think because of its intentionality, the fact that she was thinking about her future, the clarity with which she accepted who she was and who she hoped to become.”

Because of the power of Esther’s messages, Earl knows that if she were dying, she would also schedule emails for her husband and children. “I think I would be very clear about how many messages I had written and when to expect them,” she adds, noting they could cause anxiety for relatives and friends otherwise.

Yet while the terminally ill ponder their digital legacies, the majority of us do not. In November 2018, a YouGov survey found that only 7% of people want their social media accounts to remain online after they die, yet it is estimated that by 2100, there could be 4.9bn dead users on Facebook alone. Planning your digital death is not really about scheduling status updates for loved ones or building an AI avatar. In practice, it is a series of unglamorous decisions about deleting your Facebook, Twitter and Netflix accounts; protecting your email against hackers; bestowing your music library to your friends; allowing your family to download photos from your cloud; and ensuring that your online secrets remain hidden in their digital alcoves.

In Be Right Back, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence.
In Be Right Back, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence. Photograph: Channel 4

“We should think really carefully about anything we’re entrusting or storing on any digital platform,” says Dr Elaine Kasket, a psychologist and author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. “If our digital stuff were like our material stuff, we would all look like extreme hoarders.” Kasket says it is naive to assume that our online lives die with us. In practice, your hoard of digital data can cause endless complications for loved ones, particularly when they don’t have access to your passwords.

“I cursed my father every step of the way,” says Richard, a 34-year-old engineer from Ontario who was made executor of his father’s estate four years ago. Although Richard’s father left him a list of passwords, not one remained valid by the time of his death. Richard couldn’t access his father’s online government accounts, his email (to inform his contacts about the funeral), or even log on to his computer. For privacy reasons, Microsoft refused to help Richard access his father’s computer. “Because of that experience I will never call Microsoft again,” he says.

Our devices capture so much stuff, we don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here

Compare this with the experience of Jan-Ole Lincke, a 24-year-old pharmaceutical worker from Hamburg whose father left up-to-date passwords behind on a sheet of paper when he died two years ago. “Getting access was thankfully very easy,” says Lincke, who was able to download pictures from his father’s Google profile, shut down his email to prevent hacking, and delete credit card details from his Amazon account. “It definitely made me think about my own [digital legacy],” says Lincke, who has now written his passwords down.

Yet despite growing awareness about the data we leave behind, very few of us are doing anything about it. In 2013, a Brighton-based company called Cirrus Legacy made headlines after it began allowing people to securely leave behind passwords for a nominated loved one. Yet the Cirrus website is now defunct, and the Guardian was unable to reach its founder for comment. Clarkson Wright & Jakes Solicitors, a Kent-based law firm that offered the Cirrus service to its clients, says the option was never popular.

“We’ve been aware for quite a period now that the big issue for the next generation is digital footprints,” says Jeremy Wilson, head of the wills and estates team at CWJ. “Cirrus made sense and ticked a lot of boxes but, to be honest, not one client has taken us up on it.”

Wilson also notes that people don’t know about the laws surrounding digital assets such as the music, movies and games they have downloaded. While many of us assume we own our iTunes library or collection of PlayStation games, in fact, most digital downloads are only licensed to us, and this licence ends when we die.

What we want to do and what the law allows us to do with our digital legacy can therefore be very different things. Yet at present it is not the law that dominates our decisions about digital death. “Regulation is always really slow to keep up with technology,” says Kasket. “That means that platforms and corporations like Facebook end up writing the rules.”

Andrew Scott stars in the new Black Mirror episode Smithereens, which explores our digital dependency.
Andrew Scott stars in the new Black Mirror episode Smithereens, which explores our digital dependency. Photograph: Netflix / Black Mirror

In 2012, a 15-year-old German girl died after being hit by a subway train in Berlin. Although the girl had given her parents her online passwords, they were unable to access her Facebook account because it had been “memorialised” by the social network. Since October 2009, Facebook has allowed profiles to be transformed into “memorial pages” that exist in perpetuity. No one can then log into the account or update it, and it remains frozen as a place for loved ones to share their grief.

The girl’s parents sued Facebook for access to her account – they hoped to use it to determine whether her death was suicide. They originally lost the case, although a German court later granted the parents permission to get into her account, six years after her death.

“I find it concerning that any big tech company that hasn’t really shown itself to be the most honest, transparent or ethical organisation is writing the rulebook for how we should grieve, and making moral judgments about who should or shouldn’t have access to sensitive personal data,” says Kasket. The author is concerned with how Facebook uses the data of the dead for profit, arguing that living users keep their Facebook accounts because they don’t want to be “locked out of the cemetery” and lose access to relatives’ memorialised pages. As a psychologist, she is also concerned that Facebook is dictating our grief.

“Facebook created memorial profiles to prevent what they called ‘pain points’, like getting birthday reminders for a deceased person,” she says. “But one of the mothers I spoke to for my book was upset when her daughter’s profile was memorialised and she stopped getting these reminders. She was like, ‘This is my daughter, I gave birth to her, it’s still her birthday’.”

While Facebook users now have the option to appoint a “legacy contact” who can manage or delete their profile after death, Kasket is concerned that there are very few personalisation options when it comes to things like birthday reminders, or whether strangers can post on your wall. “The individuality and the idiosyncrasy of grief will flummox Facebook every time in its attempts to find a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says.

Pain points … should we allow loved ones to curate our legacy, or create ‘memorial pages’?
Pain points … should we allow loved ones to curate our legacy, or create ‘memorial pages’? Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Matthew Helm, a 27-year-old technical analyst from Minnesota, says his mother’s Facebook profile compounded his grief after she died four years ago. “The first year was the most difficult,” says Helm, who felt some relatives posted about their grief on his mother’s wall in order to get attention. “In the beginning I definitely wished I could just wipe it all.” Helm hoped to delete the profile but was unable to access his mother’s account. He did not ask the tech giant to delete the profile because he didn’t want to give it his mother’s death certificate.

Conversely, Stephanie Nimmo, a 50-year-old writer from Wimbledon, embraced the chance to become her husband’s legacy contact after he died of bowel cancer in December 2015. “My husband and I shared a lot of information on Facebook. It almost became a bit of an online diary,” she says. “I didn’t want to lose that.” She is pleased people continue to post on her husband’s wall, and enjoys tagging him in posts about their children’s achievements. “I’m not being maudlin or creating a shrine, just acknowledging that their dad lived and he played a role in their lives,” she explains.

Nimmo is now passionate about encouraging people to plan their digital legacies. Her husband also left her passwords for his Reddit, Twitter, Google and online banking accounts. He also deleted Facebook messages he didn’t want his wife to see. “Even in a marriage there are certain things you wouldn’t want your other half to see because it’s private,” says Nimmo. “It worries me a little that if something happened to me, there are things I wouldn’t want my kids to see.”

When it comes to the choice between allowing relatives access to your accounts or letting a social media corporation use your data indefinitely after your death, privacy is a fundamental issue. Although the former makes us sweat, the latter is arguably more dystopian. Dr Edinja Harbinja is a law lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, who argues that we should all legally be entitled to postmortem privacy.

If we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us

“The deceased should have the right to control what happens to their personal data and online identities when they die,” she says, explaining that the Data Protection Act 2018 defines “personal data” as relating only to living people. Harbinja says this is problematic because rules such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation don’t apply to the dead, and because there are no provisions that allow us to pass on our online data in wills. “There can be many issues because we don’t know what would happen if someone is a legacy contact on Facebook, but the next of kin want access.” For example, if you decide you want your friend to delete your Facebook pictures after you die, your husband could legally challenge this. “There could be potential court cases.”

Kasket says people “don’t realise how much preparation they need to do in order to make plans that are actually able to be carried out”. It is clear that if we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us. “What one person craves is what another person is horrified about,” says Kasket.

How close are we to a Black Mirror-style digital afterlife?

Read more

Esther Earl continued to tweet for another year after her death. Automated posts from the music website Last.fm updated her followers about the music she enjoyed. There is no way to predict the problems we will leave online when we die; Lori Earl would never have thought of revoking Last.fm’s permissions to post on her daughter’s page before she died. “We would have turned off the posts if we had been able to,” she says.

Kasket says “the fundamental message” is to think about how much you store digitally. “Our devices, without us even having to try, capture so much stuff,” she says. “We don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here any more.”

• Black Mirror season 5 launches on Netflix on 5 June.

Images

What Is a Digital Will?

What Is a Digital Will?

rmal will or trust. You’ll need to check with each site or service provider to understand if your purchase is an ownership right that is transferable or simply a license to use the product.

Using Legacy Policies

Many popular websites have legacy policies in their Terms of Service Agreement to address what will become of your digital footprint after you die. Policies vary from allowing a named executor to close an account, to authoring your account be deleted after a period of inactivity. It’s a good idea to review a site’s legacy policy before drafting your digital will. The following are a few examples from popular businesses:

  • PayPal has a process to allow an estate’s executor to close a user’s account. Remaining funds will be liquidated by check made out to the estate.
  • Twitter allows family members to deactivate a deceased member’s account. Twitter does not provide log-in information to the executor.
  • Ebay’s user agreement doesn’t allow transfer of accounts to others. If you need to close an account due to death, you should contact their support team.
  • Google’s “Inactive Account Manager” allows you to decide how your account is handled if it’s inactive for a specified length of time. For example, if you have not logged into your email in one year, the account will be deleted. You can designate up to 10 people to handle your accounts as digital executors.
  • Facebook lets family members convert the deceased’s account to a “memorized” status. Upon receiving proof of death, sensitive personal information is deleted and the status of the account is changed.

Uniform Digital Assets Law

A growing number of states introduced legislation to address access issues to a deceased’s digital property. The personal representative of your estate has a legal duty to protect your assets. But they can be blocked by on-line provider polices about when or if they will grant access to legally appointed fiduciaries.

The Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act is a model law designed to work with a state’s existing laws on probate, guardianship, trusts, and powers of attorney. The law gives your estate’s representative power over your traditional assets, including digital ones. The act allows your representative to manage digital property like computer files, web domains, and virtual currency, but restricts their access to electronic communications such as email, text messages, and social media accounts unless the original user consented in a will, trust, power of attorney, or other record.

Still Have Questions About Your Will? Receive a Free Initial Review

Do you want your loved ones to have access to your digital property? Or is it important to ensure your digital privacy after death. Planning for the final distribution of your digital assets is complex. If you have questions about your will, an experienced attorney near you can help. Get a free initial review of your situation regarding a digital will.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified estate planning attorney to help you ensure that your loved ones are cared for and your wishes are honored.

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Untrending: Thinking in terms of legacy

Untrending: Thinking in terms of legacy

Untrending: Thinking in terms of legacy

Click here to view original web page at Untrending: Thinking in terms of legacy

Vicki McLeod

As I write this, I’m putting the finishing touches on a book manuscript. It will be sent to the editor in the morning, and following about a month of substantive edits, it will go into the hands of a copy editor to take care of things like commas and periods.

After that, it will be readied for print. The book will be released in March 2019. I’ve had the privilege of co-writing the manuscript with my friend and colleague Angela Crocker. Angela is well known as a digital thought-leader, offering expertise in a wide range of digital life skills. This book is her fifth and my second. The book has been a collaborative effort and a labour of love.

It required us to first craft a shared vision regarding what the manuscript would be and what shared perspective we’d take. We devised an outline, a list of resources, a meeting schedule and set manuscript milestones.

Then we had to roll up our sleeves and write. As we dug into research and explored topics, new ideas emerged and we negotiated changes as we incorporated our new findings. Our aim: always to make the manuscript better.

The book is called Digital Legacy Plan: a guide to the personal and practical elements of your life before death. It will be published by Self Counsel Press and it is already listed for advance sale on Amazon.comAmazon.caAmazon.uk and Barnes and Noble. It’s the real deal. The subject matter is sensitive, death being a relatively taboo subject, and writing about it forced us to look at our feelings about death and dying and our own digital footprints. We’ve had to step back at times and give each other room to reflect on losses, revisit our own grief. We’ve had to really listen to each other and respond with empathy and respect.

It’s taken a kind of personal leadership from both of us to ease our project over the bumpy spots, and stay focused on reasons why the book matters. I’m writing about this, partly because digital legacy planning is an interesting subject for a column, but also because Saturday is election day.

What’s important is that you vote. For those who are running, what’s important is what comes after the vote. At the end of the day, we will have a newly elected mayor, council and school board. For some, this will be a completely new role. Others will bring experience with them.

Collaboration is not easy. It requires skillful communication and buckets of good intentions. It will be important that our new civic leaders find their way to a shared vision for the community. They will need to practice a kind of give-and-take and a willingness to negotiate and find common interests that are not required while campaigning, but is crucial to governing.

They will need to see big picture, and at the same time grasp a vast array of new information.

Angela and I chose to work together. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we have a good measure of our capacity to stickhandle our differences.

For the newly elected, it’s a different story. They will be working with people that they may not know, or whose platforms they opposed. Still, they will be called upon to make decisions collaboratively, for the good of the whole.

For some people, certain issues are more emotional than others. Some may be heavily attached to promises made during the election and focus on quick outcomes. Others may take a longer view.

Perspective is everything, and a shared one is hard won. Decisions taken now will have an impact quite possibly far into the future.

Given the context of my book project, I can’t help but think in terms of legacy. The people we elect tomorrow carry the future in the hands. It is the community they are stewarding, and their legacy belongs to all of us.

A turning point in digital immortality

A turning point in digital immortality

A couple of recent cases suggest that we could be on the cusp of intestacy and privacy laws stepping in to help assert control over your digital footprint after death, writes Amy Bradbury

In the UK there is no specific legal framework for dealing with digital assets on death and, given we usually don’t own social media profiles (all we have is a licence to use the platform in question), it tends to be the website’s own terms which govern the position.

Some sites have policies in place for when a user dies. Twitter will work with a person authorised to act on behalf of the Estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated, and both Facebook and Instagram will ‘memorialise’ accounts. Facebook also allows a user to either appoint a ‘legacy contact’ to look after a memorialised account or have the account permanently deleted. However, it remains extremely difficult to get permission to log in to the deceased’s account, see messages or remove or change posts.

This was highlighted by a recent German case. It has been widely reported that Germany’s highest court has ruled that heirs in Germany have the right to access the Facebook accounts of their deceased relatives as a social media contract can be inherited in the same way as documents such as letters. The decision comes after a long battle by the parents of a 15 year old girl to access her profile, including posts and private messages, to try to find clues about whether her death was an accident or suicide. Despite having the account password, Facebook had refused access citing data protection laws and the privacy of third parties. Hailed as a landmark decision, the judgment purportedly sets aside these concerns and takes a step towards putting digital assets on the same footing as physical assets in Germany.

Separately, in the case of Sabados v Facebook Ireland Ltd the English Court required Facebook to hand over certain information to a bereaved partner. Ms Sabados brought an application against Facebook following the deletion of her deceased’s partner’s account at the request of an unknown individual. The judge ruled that Facebook had to provide details of who made the deletion request which, at the time, was unbeknown to the deceased’s family and friends. The application was brought prior to proceedings. Although currently somewhat unclear, it appears Ms Sabados may wish to assert claims relating to misuse of private information at a later date.

In this vein, a recent claim against The Sun has highlighted that publishers may now more readily accept that privacy rights subsist after death. An invasion of privacy claim was issued following the publication of topless photos of a woman in a revenge porn case. The case was settled without admission of liability but the recognition that a privacy claim can be brought after death is significant.

These cases highlight some of the knotty issues and the need for the Courts to step in. At a legislative and regulatory level, little attention has been given to what happens to data and privacy rights on death. Indeed, whilst the introduction of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in May has signified the increased importance of protecting the data of the living, it does not apply to the deceased.

There has been call for change. For example, the Information Law and Policy Centre, a research centre within the Institute for Advanced Legal Studies at the University of London has specifically identified the issue in its response to the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications’ call for evidence in its consultation on ‘The Internet: To Regulate or Not to Regulate’.

In the meantime, individuals would be wise to take certain practical steps to protect their digital legacy on death by: creating an inventory of digital assets; keeping passwords in a password manager or digital inheritance account; appointing someone to deal with digital assets on death and ensuring that social media account settings have been amended to in accordance with an individual’s wishes where options for memorialisation are available.

Amy Bradbury is a reputation protection senior associate at Harbottle & Lewis

Swedish death cleaning: How to declutter your home and life

Swedish death cleaning: How to declutter your home and life

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.

Digital death

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.

“Don’t mind me, just writing down all my passwords for when I die”.
Shutterstock

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 concept of decluttering before you die is apparently part of Swedish culture.
Shutterstock

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?

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.