What happens to your online accounts when you die?

What happens to your online accounts when you die?

BSides Manchester What happens to the numerous user logins you’ve accumulated after you die or become too infirm to manipulate a keyboard?

Some people have a plan, the digital equivalent of living will, or have chosen “family” option in a password management package such as LastPass or have entrusted a book of passwords to a family member.

But the consequences of doing nothing are not as neutral as some might expect and were spelled out during an informative presentation by Chris Boyd of Malwarebyes at BSides in Manchester on Thursday. The presentation, cheerily titled “The digital entropy of death”, covered what could happen to your carefully curated online presence after you log off.

Chris Boyd at BSides - Pic by John Leyden
The dormant accounts of the deceased can be abused, warns Malwarebytes’ Chris Boyd. Pic: John Leyden

Miscreants are already targeting obviously abandoned profiles. Boyd explained that in some cases it’s easier for fraudsters to gain hold of these accounts than the account-holders’ relatives, because crooks know the systems better and controls – although present – are often deeply embedded on the sites such as Facebook, Twitter et al.

Alongside regular postings asking for help on Facebook due to compromise of dead people’s logins (examples here and here) there’s also the problem of “cloning”.

“Facebook users have reported receiving friend requests from accounts associated with dead friends and family members,” The Independent reports. “Such requests appear to be the result of cloning or hacking scams that see criminals try [to] add people on the site, and then use that friendship as a way of stealing money from them or running other cons.”

Social media accounts are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Most people these days run 100+ accounts, as figures from password management software apps show. These figures are only increasing over time. Some sites are managing the inevitability of their users shuffling off this mortal coil with features designed to deactivate accounts after months of inactivity or other features, Boyd explained in a recent blog post:

Many sites now offer a way for relatives and executors to memorialise, or just delete, an account. In other circumstances, services would rather you ‘self-manage’ and plan ahead for your own demise (cheerful!) by setting a ticking timer. If the account is inactive for the specified length of time, then into the great digital ether it goes.

While a lot of services don’t openly advertise what to do in the event of a death on their website, they will give advice should you contact them, whether social network, email service, or web host. When there’s no option available, though, people will forge their own path and take care of their so-called ‘digital estate planning’ themselves.

Users would be ill-advised to leave everything to their next of kin. “Do some pre-handover diligence, and take some time to ensure everything is locked down tight,” Boyd explained. “If there’s anything hugely important you need them to know, tell them in advance.”

People may have bought digital purchases tied to certain platforms. Games on Steam, or music on iTunes or Spotify.

“Legally, when you go, so do your files (in as much as anything you can’t download and keep locally is gone forever),” Boyd explained. “That’s because you’re buying into a licence to use a thing, as opposed to buying the thing itself.”

Here’s a video of his presentation, if you want to see more…

There’s nothing stopping someone from passing on a login to a family member so they can continue to make use of all the purchased content, at least for now. Boyd predicted that at some point, all of our digital accounts tied to financial purchases will have some sort of average human lifespan timer attached to them.

Millennials mark the first generation not to know life before an always-on, everywhere internet, which will become the norm from now on. “Younger generations absolutely will demand reforms to the way we think about digital content, ownership, and inheritance,” Boyd concluded. ®

As well as the inevitable rise and fall of social media site (e.g. MySpace), and web 2.0 services there is also the issue of link rot, the phenomenon of more and more URLs not working over time. This issue is covered by Boyd in another recent blog post here.

The One Big Thing Your Estate Plan Is Missing

The One Big Thing Your Estate Plan Is Missing

The One Big Thing Your Estate Plan Is Missing

You may have great estate planning documents. You may have discussed them with your family. You may have even inventoried your digital assets and feel that your job is done. But your estate plan may still be missing one BIG thing: a “letter of instruction.”

Do your representatives know what to do?

Managing an estate is a tough job. If you died today, would your Successor Trustee or other representatives even know where to start? Where is the key to your safe-deposit box? Where are your car titles? What is the combination to the floor safe? Where is the abstract of title to your home? What are the passwords to your computer and other online accounts?

A letter of instruction is meant to help guide your representatives through administering your estate after your death. Imagine that you could stand over the shoulders of your spouse or children or other loved ones and tell them exactly what needs to be done. Very likely, these individuals are going through a tremendous amount of stress and grieving. But you can ease their burden by leaving step-by-step instructions to help them through the process. That is the purpose of a letter of instruction.

What should my letter contain?

There is no right or wrong way to prepare a letter of instruction. A few ideas were mentioned above. Include a list of where your assets are located, how to access your accounts, where you keep important title documents, etc. These pieces of information are essential to managing any estate.

However, your letter can provide even greater detail. What subscriptions (cable, newspaper, lawn service) need to be canceled? What are the names and phone numbers of your advisers (financial, medical, spiritual, insurance) that should be contacted after your death? How can your representatives contact your family to let them know of your death? Where would you like your funeral held? Do you have a preferred program for your funeral? Do you already have an obituary prepared?

Your letter can also include instructions for distributing small items of personal property that have low market value — but high sentimental value — to your family. You may wish to distribute these items to certain beneficiaries rather than having them sold with your other property as part of an estate sale. Letting your representatives know about your wishes could keep these items from being lost forever. Remember, however, that your letter of instruction can only voice a preference for how you want untitled personal property distributed. All gifts of titled property must be made through proper legal documents.

Talk to an attorney about a letter of instruction.

Estate planning involves more than just legal papers. It is also about more than just your own well-being; it is about providing for your loved ones after you are gone. To discuss how you can take care of your loved ones after your death, contact the Oklahoma City estate planning attorneys at Postic & Bates for a free, no-obligation consultation appointment.

As a bonus, click below to download our FREE Estate Planning Guide for access to over 70 pages of information about estate planning and probate:

[As with all our posts, the contents of this article do not constitute legal advice and are subject to our site-wide disclaimer.]

Planning for a Digital Legacy

Planning for a Digital Legacy

Digital property is increasingly becoming a more important part of estate planning. Individuals should consider their digital property, in addition to their tangible assets, when finalizing and reviewing their estate plans.

A person’s digital property and electronic communications are referred to as “digital assets” and the companies who store those assets on their servers (Google, Facebook, Apple, etc.) are referred to as “custodians.” Digital assets are typically governed by terms of a service agreement — not by property law. These service agreements are unhelpful when a user passes away or becomes incapacitated. As the number of digital assets we have increases daily, so does this growing issue. To address this, many states have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA), which allows a fiduciary the legal authority to manage another’s property and specifically allows Internet users the power to plan for the management and disposition of their digital assets.

Digital assets should be included in your normal estate planning and wealth transfer conversations with your estate planning attorney and family members. Your estate planning attorney may create an amendment to your existing will, trust, or power of attorney to give the designated agent the authority to direct or dispose of your digital assets. This amendment may take the form of a Virtual Asset Instruction Letter, which allows you to list accounts, instructions for those accounts, and the person(s) designated to access them.

Digital assets, while not always tangible, can be very valuable. For example, airline miles and hotel points have obvious monetary value, while photos, emails, and other creative works have sentimental value. As a result, it is important for individuals to have a plan for photos, email and social media accounts, financial accounts, and online memorabilia and documents.

Please contact us to request additional resources on creating a digital estate.

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Digital Legacy: What will you pass along when you pass away?

Digital Legacy: What will you pass along when you pass away?

Digital Legacy: What will you pass along when you pass away?

No matter how you choose to spend your time on Earth, you will inherently leave behind a legacy. This includes what you’ve created that you will pass along (wealth, assets, knowledge) and what you stood for or represented while you were alive (strong work ethic, humility, etc…). Leaving some sort of legacy to friends and family is partly what makes life worth living.

However, how do the new digital environments which we spend a large amount of our time fit into our legacies? How will one’s Digital Legacy live on?

Leaving a Digital Legacy

Back in October of 2016, I published an article on LinkedIn that spurred someone to comment some hateful things – cursing me out and telling me to stop writing.

I’ve got thick skin so it didn’t bother me. But, it was so uncharacteristic of an executive on LinkedIn (the world’s professional platform) that it got me thinking.

Every action on public platforms contributes to our Digital Legacy. These actions are recorded and archived.

Future kids and grandkids are going to be tech-savvy at a level we may not comprehend right now. A regular Tuesday night might be scraping their grandpa’s Twitter account for all his public Tweets – seeing how he spent his years online.

Tell me, how will that grandparent explain to his grandkid the time he called someone on YouTube a “fat bucket of fried chicken”?

Those precious, “gather round” story-time moments that grandchildren share with their grandparents are soon going to include the actions we take in digital environments.

My grandpa was a fairly secretive man. The few moments that someone got him to open up about his past, we all got quiet and listened because we knew there was a great story coming.

Today, digital environments record many of these great stories for us. Vacations, activities, and everyday pictures are logged on Instagram. Visual conversations are logged on Snapchat. Raw emotions are logged on Twitter rants.

The beauty of a Digital Legacy is that it’s extremely transparent. And also acts as a time capsule.

From here on out, digital environments will provide a lot of clarity to the identity of a person’s life. But, there’s more to a Digital Legacy than stories.

Inheriting a Digital Estate

Over a lifetime, we accumulate “things” and “stuff”. Some of it valuable, some useless, and some priceless. Increasingly, more of these accumulated assets are becoming digital.

You might have dozens of email, social media, and other accounts, a few digital content subscriptions (Netflix, Apple Music, etc.), and hundreds of personal media files (pictures and videos).

These are assets you may want to pass along to family or friends.

For me, I’ve spent tens of thousands of dollars building a massive archive of digital music, ebooks, and online movies. No different than a box of records, a shelf of books, and a cabinet of DVDs – I want my Digital Estate to be passed along and enjoyed by others once I pass away.

Unfortunately, there aren’t simple ways of doing so. One proposed law, the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (FADA) aims to make digital asset transfer legal. But, it’s far from being passed.

Additionally, considering a Last Will & Testament eventually becomes publicly available, the last thing you want to do is bequeath your passwords over this public document.

Some of the larger online entities (GoogleFacebookLinkedInInstagram) provide options for people to memorialize the accounts of the deceased. But, it’s somewhat of an arduous process and mostly prevents others from taking over the account.

Also, this doesn’t account for the thousands or millions of other accounts out there that don’t have these options.

Nonetheless, we can agree that our loved ones’ digital assets shouldn’t pass away with them. Preserving social media accounts and other services is a way of preserving great memories.

As we accumulate more digital assets, the need for Digital Estate management will grow. We can expect to see services pop up in the coming decade that makes the process of Digital Inheritance easier.

The Collective Legacy

One of the highest behavioral motivators is wanting to be remembered, to make a lasting accomplishment in the name of society. It’s partially what fuels innovation and economy.

But, it is far from foolproof. And one of the greatest creatives of our time, Kanye West, brings up some very interesting questions:

“What makes us be so selfish and prideful… what keeps us from wanting to help the next man? What makes us be so focused on a personal legacy as opposed to the entire legacy of a race?”

The pride we take in wanting a legacy for our name often forces us to forget about the person standing next to us.

I’m a firm believer that dedicating your time to the goals of others pays huge returns for your own missions… As long as you aren’t helping others to help yourself.

Balance the time you invest in building your legacy and the collective legacy of our race because they are equally important to leading a fulfilling life.

The digital entropy of death: what happens to your online accounts when you die

The digital entropy of death: what happens to your online accounts when you die

Unless you’re planning on having your mind jammed inside some sort of computer chip, eventually mortality will catch up and you’re going to have to work out what you’ll do with all of your online accounts. When it’s time to shuffle off this mortal coil, you might, theoretically, be slightly annoyed if someone is using your dormant accounts to spam viagra or fake Twitter apps. The sad reality is, when we go, we leave behind a potentially terrifying amount of accounts lying around in the digital ether, and not all of them may be as secure as one would like.

Even if they’re locked down with multiple security steps, someone could break into a database and pilfer insecure information from the back end. We have the very odd situation of there being a digital zombie sleeper army, ready and willing to come back and cause all sorts of security/spam issues worldwide.

Is there anything we can do about it? Can relatives ensure we don’t come back as some sort of bizarre cyber-horror? Do websites and services have any process in place for this strange new world of accounts that are, to coin a phrase, just taking a nap?

Surprisingly, help is at hand more often than not. First, though, we need to have a think about some sort of tally.

There’s (not) security in numbers

Passwords are a great way to gauge how many accounts we have personally. Check out any number of “How many accounts do we have” articles going back several years. Very handy! An unintended side effect of said articles and their number crunching is that we can also use that data to try and map out the kind of problem we may be facing with orphaned accounts. The average UK consumer alone has something like 188 online accounts, and that figure is from 2015—no doubt the number continues to rise as every aspect of our lives winds its way online.

Speaking of number crunching: 151,000 people die every day. Something like 55 million people die every year. Even if just 10 percent of the 500,000 people who die in the UK annually had 188 accounts each, that’d still be 94 million accounts suddenly abandoned—more than enough to cause a spot of bother. Then throw in the accounts of the recently deceased from around the world, and the numbers are suddenly a bit panic-inducing.

I’d be surprised if scammers don’t set aside a little time for targeting obviously abandoned profiles. Aside from regular postings asking for help on Facebook due to compromise of dead people’s logins [1], [2], there’s also the problem of “cloning.” Once you start poking around this subject, problems are everywhere.

Setting the tripwires

Of course, there are a fair few security-centric things we can do now to ensure we make it as hard as possible for those going on a spot of dormant hunting. Multi-factor authentication, password managers, good browsing practices, blockers, security tools…in short, everything you’re hopefully doing by default anyway. It’ll all help to keep your accounts in lockdown when the time comes that you no longer require them.

Additionally, not all services will be around forever—the endless churn of the web will see to that. Today’s social network is tomorrow’s “bought out and turned into something for delivering pizzas by taxi.” One can assume a large portion of all but the biggest accounts you have will, eventually, crash and burn. Not good for them, not good for people using the service, but definitely good for anyone no longer fussed about the paradigm shift in pizzas and taxis.

As time has passed, digital providers have realised they need to start offering some options for relatives of the recently deceased—one can’t assume everyone knows their security stuff, and many relatives would be hugely distressed to see accounts of a dead relative tweeting about healthcare plans or posting movie promos to Instagram.

Many sites now offer a way for relatives and executors to memorialise, or just delete, an account. In other circumstances, services would rather you ” self-manage” and plan ahead for your own demise (cheerful!) by setting a ticking timer. If the account is inactive for the specified length of time, then into the great digital ether it goes. These are useful options to have available.

While a lot of services don’t openly advertise what to do in the event of a death on their website, they will give advice should you contact them, whether social network, email service, or web host. When there’s no option available, though, people will forge their own path and take care of their so-called “digital estate planning” themselves.

The D.I.Y. approach

What do you do if the visible services your loved ones used don’t do the whole “death resolution” thing? Worse, how do you even know about the potentially hundreds of logins they have sitting around elsewhere? Sure, you might know about the really obvious ones but people don’t typically draw up a list of the weird, wonderful (and possibly not wonderful) services they used and hand it to their next of kin.

What we are seeing is people making use of password managers in ways other than having a convenient and secure login to services; they’re also creating back up accounts for their digital departure. In these situations, a fully fleshed out password manager, containing all of a person’s logins, has its access stored in a secure place and given to a close relative. Of course, the relative receiving this digital treasure trove is going to be extremely trusted—they probably don’t want to hand it to that crazy uncle who shouts at family gatherings.

The manner in which they hand over the password manager account is incredibly important, too. Is it a physical thing? A login written on paper? Something digital? Is it secure? Maybe it’s a hard drive. Is it encrypted? How will it be updated with new logins/ changes to passwords? Does the relative live nearby if it’s physical? If they live far away, would something purely online make more sense?

These are all important questions that need to be thrashed out long before handing account information over, and it’s probably a bit much to put the onus on the recipient to start bolting security gates you may have left wide open. Do some pre-handover diligence, and make some time to ensure everything is locked down tight. If there’s anything hugely important you need them to know, tell them in advance—don’t hand over a hard drive and ask them why they didn’t make a backup two months after the thing has fallen into the bathtub.

Digital family heirlooms

That’s the grim stuff out of the way. What happens to accounts you’ve invested a ton of money in? You may have bought a lot of digital purchases tied to certain platforms. Games on Steam, or music on iTunes or Spotify—they’re all tied to specific logins in your name. When you die, what happens to the purchases? In the real world, you end up with a ton of dusty boxes. Online? Those “boxes” will be taken away from you.

In an ideal scenario, you could nominate someone to take over a digital account and they’d inherit the purchases. But legally, when you go, so do your files (in as much as anything you can’t download and keep locally is gone forever.) That’s because you’re buying into a license to use a thing, as opposed to buying the thing itself. I did have a whole pile of text for this bit, but as it turns out, the ground has already been thoroughly covered.

Logan’s (video game) Run

Logan’s Run, the sci-fi movie from 1976 where everyone has a timer ticking down till they hit the age of 30, is weirdly relevant to this discussion because ticking timers are most definitely going to be a thing. See, there’s nothing stopping someone from passing on a login to a family member so they can continue to make use of all the purchased content. The platform owners are never going to know about it. However, as those wheels of time continue to crank, at some point somebody is going to wonder why Steve McHuman is still playing games at the ripe old age of 123.

This is why I predict that at some point, all of our digital accounts tied to financial purchases will have some sort of average human lifespan timer attached to them. The moment it wanders past 100 or so years? Poof, gone. I mean, this is better than being chased down by a Sandman once you hit 30, but it does mean your digital purchases will almost certainly expire at a later date—and that’s assuming the services of today are even around in 100 years time.

Many are the grim ways that lead to his cybercave: all dismal

Well, not quite so dismal. Sorry, Milton. We’re in a bit of an odd situation at the moment, as we’re now well into the point in history where we have the last generation to know life before 24/7 Internet. For many, being online is an absolutely crucial resource of existence. Meanwhile, Internet of Things technology ensures it continues to leap from behind a screen to the real world. We can’t escape it, no more than we can somehow skip around Milton’s cave, and the younger generations absolutely will demand reforms to the way we think about digital content, ownership, and inheritance.

I just hope I’m around to see it. And if I’m not? Please, don’t touch my stuff.

This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog post authored by Christopher Boyd. Read the original post at: Malwarebytes Labs