The great digital beyond

The great digital beyond

A friend recently told me of the challenge she faced sorting through her aging parents’ belongings to prepare their home for sale.

Her father had died years ago and her 94-year-old mother had been living in an assisted-care facility for more than a year. Most of the items of sentimental or personal value had already been distributed to her siblings. What remained were her parents’ personal archives — letters, photos, employment/financial/legal/health records, all tangible, physical objects that, once gone, would be gone forever.

In the internet age, personal archives are no longer limited to the tangible. In fact, much of one’s personal archives is now digital — emails, texts, photos, videos and social media accounts. And there’s a lot more content generated and stored than ever before. Some is saved on personal storage space, such as a computer hard drive. Other material lives in the cloud in services like Facebook, Google Mail and YouTube. In most cases, that content is protected by some kind of password.

So what becomes of all of that information when someone dies? Does it remain online forever? Can it be altered, deleted or downloaded, and if so, by whom? And how do these digital artifacts represent your life and legacy?

These questions inspired Evan Carroll and John Romano to create the website thedigitalbeyond.com to address these needs and concerns. Together they wrote the book “Your Digital Afterlife” in 2011. Since that time an entire industry has emerged to help people plan for managing their digital legacy. Thedigitalbeyond.com lists dozens of such online services. Some are free while others are fee-based.

Knotifyme.com, for example, “answers the question, ‘What happens to all my online accounts if I get amnesia, Alzheimer’s or if I leave from this world?’ With knotify.me you set future notifications to be sent to your family and beloved people or to yourself, ensuring that nothing of your digital life will be wasted (and) transfers your online property/heritage (urls, domain names, e-mail & social network accounts, etc.) to whomever you wish to continue it in the future!” You can sign up for this free service through your Facebook, Twitter or Google accounts. In short, according to its tagline, Knotifyme.com “manages your digital heritage.”

To address financial matters, consider Legacyarmour.com, which describes itself as “a secure asset protection platform where you organize your important information in encrypted vaults, and …. automatically deliver it to your designated recipients on a scheduled date, or in case of your death or incapacitation.” It is a fee-based membership service with different levels of coverage and prices depending on what you want.

The rapid growth of the web has outpaced the law in the realm of the digital afterlife. It wasn’t until 2015 that the Uniform Law Commission, a nongovernment organization, created the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA). It has since been adopted by 40 states and been introduced in five more this year. As its name suggests, RUFADAA “allows fiduciaries to manage digital property like computer files, web domains, and virtual currency, but restricts a fiduciary’s 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.”

Some online services have their own policies for providing access to a person’s account after he or she dies. Facebook allows users to designate a “Legacy Contact” who is legally permitted to enter someone’s account to post, respond to friend requests, and update profile and cover photos. The Legacy Contact may also be given the power to download an archive of the photos, posts and profile information in that account. Facebook users can also simply opt to have their account permanently deleted after their death. Google offers an Inactive Account Manager feature that allows users to share parts of their account data or notify someone if they’ve been inactive for a certain period of time.

One important and often repeated piece of advice is to never put usernames and passwords for any online accounts in your will, as it becomes a public record once it is entered into a probate court file.

It is never too soon to start estate planning, whether it be for tangible assets or digital ones. It may be well worth your time to investigate the policy options of your online account services and perhaps even avail yourself of some of the many digital afterlife services available today.

Cerise Oberman, SUNY Distinguished Librarian Emeritus, retired as dean of Library & Information Services at SUNY Plattsburgh. She can be reached at cerise.oberman@plattsburgh.edu. Tim Hartnett is associate librarian at SUNY Plattsburgh, Reach him at tim.hartnett@plattsburgh.edu.

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.

A German court ruled you can inherit Facebook content like a letter or a diary

A German court ruled you can inherit Facebook content like a letter or a diary

A German court ruled you can inherit Facebook content like a letter or a diary

Germany’s highest court ruled Thursday (July 12) that the parents of a teenager who died in 2012 after being hit by a train should be allowed to access her Facebook account, including her private messages.

The court argued that digital content should be passed onto heirs like letters, books, or diaries. The girl’s parents wanted to look into her account to determine whether she committed suicide. This would also help determine whether the driver of the train should be entitled to compensation.

Over the course of the legal battle, Facebook refused to give parents access to the account to protect the privacy of the people she was connected to on the platform, the BBC reported.

Currently, Facebook’s policy is to “memorialize” an account when the site is informed of someone’s death. If a user has a “legacy contact” (here are instructions on how to set one up), Facebook grants them limited access to the user’s account, allowing them change the user’s profile picture, accept friend requests, or pin posts to the top of the user’s profile. They can also ask the platform to delete the account. Recently, Facebook told Quartz, the company revised its policy to allow parents or guardians of minors to become legacy contacts after their child has died.

In rare cases, the company says, authorized people, like family members, can request information from a deceased person’s account, if they have a court order. But there’s no guarantee they will get what they need.

A Facebook spokesperson said in a statement the company disagreed with the German ruling:

These questions — how to weigh the wishes of the relatives and protect the privacy of third parties – are some of the toughest we’ve confronted. We empathize with the family. At the same time, Facebook accounts are used for a personal exchange between individuals which we have a duty to protect. While we respectfully disagree with today’s decision by [the court], the lengthy process shows how complex the issue under discussion is. We will be analyzing the judgment to assess its full implications.

As more of our lives are online, the question of what happens to our data after we die becomes both more complicated and pressing. The wishes of family members of a person who has passed away often run into the terms of service of Silicon Valley companies that store their data. In the US, the girl’s parents would not be able to obtain her private messages in a similar situation, Gene Newman, editorial director of Everplans, a company that creates digital estate archives, told Quartz.

There’s been a “lot of progress” in the US when it comes to the regulation of digital estates, Newman said, but, “it’s still such a tricky area.” Companies are extra-careful when it comes to granting a third-party access to someone’s account because of potential abuses.

Many US states have in recent years passed regulations which enable fiduciary access to a deceased person’s accounts, but the person has to legally grant the right to their communications to someone trusted before they die.

Today, inheriting digital assets can be quite complicated, but in the future, Newman said, they will likely be treated “as the stuff in your house.”

For now, especially if you don’t live in a state with one of these fiduciary laws, Newman recommends sharing passwords with your loved ones if you want them to be in full control of your accounts when you die—even though this might technically breach some of the tech companies terms of service, which stipulate that only one person should be associated with one account.

Why you should keep track of your most critical digital assets

What happens to your Facebook account after you die?

The death of a loved one has always been a difficult moment but with the rise of the internet and social media platforms, families now also have to contend with sometimes-murky digital afterlife rules.

Only 13% of people have made any sort of plans regarding their social media accounts following their death, according to a 2017 survey by the Digital Legacy Association (DLA).

“Social media platforms are now understanding that they need to have an end of life policy,” James Norris, founder of the DLA, told Euronews.

“The technology they’re starting to bring in is a great start but there’s still a lot to do.

“One of the main problems when it comes to planning for your digital death and the array of different accounts that we have is that each platform is different and each requires a different way in which to manage how the account is passed on,” he explained, recommending people document their wishes in a social media will.

Below are the rules on users’s death for the main platforms.

Rules on deceased social media users

Facebook users can appoint a legacy contact who would then have access to their account after their death. That person can then look after the memorialised account or delete it.

If no legacy contact has been appointed by the user, Facebook memorialises the account when it becomes aware of the user’s passing.

Once memorialised, the account can’t be logged into and remains visible to the audience it was shared with as a place for them to “gather and share memories,” according to Facebook’s settings.

To remove a deceased user’s account, Twitter requires a person authorised to act on behalf of the estate or a verified immediate family member of the deceased to make a request or the account will be deactivated.

They will need to provide details including information about the deceased, a copy of their ID, and a copy of the late user’s death certificate, according to Twitter’s Help Centre.

Google

Like Facebook, Google allows users to appoint a person who would be responsible for their account after their death. This so-called “Inactive Account Manager” is then able to access account information and delete the account.

If no such person is appointed, immediate family members can get in touch to request the account be deleted.

However, Google highlights on its Help page that “any decision to satisfy a request about a deceased user will be made only after careful review”.

How to settle your loved one’s digital estate

Giving up the ghost online and what it means to you

A GHOST tour in Edinburgh was where I first discovered the morbid truth about why Victorian headstones often had bells attached.

Buried by mistake? Ring urgently for service.

We’ve come a long way since then, and thanks to modern medicine can be certain when someone’s been ‘called home’ before doing the needful.

If you’re squirming a bit in your seat at the thought, it’s natural. The D word is nobody’s favourite and talking about it is the biggest slap in the face to any healthy dose of self-denial about what’s at the ‘end of the line’.

Anyway, let’s say you are doing a bit of planning and you’ve sorted out what to wear, who to invite and all that, then as a child of the Digital Age you must also put on your ‘to do’ list who can access your social media accounts and other digital assets when you’re gone.

Apparently it’s a bit of a grey area in legal circles and they want to do something about it.

At the helm is the NSW Law Reform Commission which his reviewing laws affecting life beyond your digital death.

Initially they’ve called for submissions from the legal profession and later in the year the public can throw in their two cents worth (and for those born after 1992, when the two-cent coin was demonetised, it means your opinion).

When making the review public, Attorney General Mark Speakman said: “In today’s hyper-connected world, an unprecedented amount of work and socialising occurs online, yet few of us consider what happens to our digital assets once we’re gone or are no longer able to make decisions.

“This is leading to confusion and complexity as family, friends and lawyers are left to untangle digital asset ownership issues, applying laws that were developed long before the arrival of email, blogs, social media and cryptocurrency.”

What the LRC is more worried about is who can access your digital stuff, but although it’s inappropriate to laugh at a time like this, this quote from Speakman was just a little bit ironic.

He said: “When a loved one passes away, bureaucratic hurdles and legal uncertainty are the last thing families and friends feel like confronting, so we need clear and fair laws to deal with these 21st Century problems.”

Bureaucratic hurdles and legal uncertainty are what families and friends are confronted with when a loved one passes away.

I suppose we’ve really only got ourselves to blame, being the most connected of all countries in the world. So, the review will focus on NSW, Commonwealth and international laws, including those relating to intellectual property, privacy, contract, crime, estate administration, wills, succession and assisted-decision making.

The LRC will scrutinise (their words, sounds expensive) the policies and terms of service agreements of social media companies and other digital service providers.

Facebook is at a bit of an advantage here already, having had lots of experience in this area.

On a more serious note, social media companies do handle sites of the deceased differently, from memorialising them to simply shutting them down.

Having a say in what you’d like to happen, particularly given there can be a story of a whole life recorded there, is important.

If you haven’t made arrangements for anyone to take control of your sites or access private emails, the LRC is considering whether additional privacy protections are needed.

The issue of ownership of digital assets upon death cuts across many different areas of law which is why it’s not clear and fair but complicated.

Here I was thinking I’d just leave a list of my 70,000 passwords for someone else to troll through my social media, blogs and websites if they could actually be bothered.

But really, who could forgo the opportunity to plan ahead by scheduling posts and memes to appear long after I’m gone, saying things like ‘I can see what you’re doing’ or ‘There is no Planet-B’.

Visit www.lawreform.justice.nsw.gov.au to read more.