I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone.

I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone.

I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone.

Click here to view original web page at I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone.

Claire Merchlinsky

Several days after my mother died in a car accident, my two sisters and I sat together in her apartment, stunned and overwhelmed. High on our horrible to-do list — along with retrieving her smashed vehicle from the tow lot, making burial plans and meeting with the rabbi — was this: getting into her cellphone.

Everything we needed to get her affairs in order was on her phone. Her contacts would tell us who to reach out to about the memorial service. Her email would tell us whether she had made plans we needed to cancel. Her finance apps would tell us whether she had been paying bills electronically. And there would be personal information, too. Her texts to family and friends. Her notepad. Her photos. The e-book she had been reading on the flight home in the hours before the accident as she left the Tulsa International Airport.

Luckily, Mom had given me the passcode to her phone only a month before. When we felt ready, I turned on her iPhone in its pink plastic case and typed in the code.


I typed in the code a second time. Again, nothing. My sisters and I looked at one another. A tightness gripped my stomach as I realized that the code Mom had given me couldn’t possibly work: That code had contained four digits, and her phone was asking for six.

Six digits means one million possible combinations, and her phone would give us only 10 tries before Apple would erase all of her data. Her old passcode had been the last four digits of the phone number at our childhood home, which ended in a zero. We decided to add two zeros to the end and were so confident that we knew how Mom’s brain worked that I paused dramatically before I tapped in the final zero, certain it would work. It did not.

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After that failure, my sisters and I treated every one of the remaining tries like some sort of nuclear access code. We made a few more attempts, none successful. With each failure, the phone made us wait longer between tries. Eventually we decided it was best to stop and find a different way in — the risk of permanently erasing everything was too great.

As a historian and biographer, I’ve made a career of reconstructing lives. To do that, you need information. The people I study and write about are entrepreneurs, innovators, famous and wealthy individuals. Their lives have been well documented in countless ways, including television interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, congressional testimony, patent records and the corporate archives of companies they founded. It’s relatively easy to reconstruct those lives, particularly if there are still friends and colleagues to help fill in the blanks.

Mom left no public record aside from a letter to the editor published in The Tulsa World. Instead, she had a dusty purple plastic bin she labeled “Memorabilia” with a Magic Marker. Inside were a prom program, a love letter from a boyfriend we had never heard of and hundreds of drawings, photos and notes from her grandchildren or us sisters as children. She had the photo albums she had made when we were little. A safe deposit box held her citizenship papers and other legal documents.

Nearly anything from the past 20 years existed only online, locked away behind passwords and firewalls. Notwithstanding the cards she made by gluing New Yorker cartoons onto cardstock, her written communications essentially stopped in the early 2000s, when she got an email account. She was a great texter, pouncing to be the first to respond in any group and embracing emojis with the passion of a preteenager. Her social media posts were politically passionate and at times head-scratchingly random.

I valued these public things, of course, but I also wanted more. We document our lives in two ways, one intended and one not. There are the emails we send, the photos we post and the comments we debate and wordsmith before hitting Return. And then there is the inadvertent record: the enraged first drafts, the unflattering selfies, the record of purchases at Amazon or Netflix, the digital sticky notes we had not meant to keep.

We work hard to curate the public self and rarely think about the shadow self. I knew from my own work, however, that off-the-cuff notes, old receipts, call logs and calendar entries can serve as proxies for feelings. A run of doctor’s appointments, a glut of calls to the same phone number that never picks up, the purchase of five types of acne cream or a self-help book — these are clues. When we are alive and artificial intelligence assembles these clues to hazard an eerily accurate prediction about our interests and future desires, we are horrified. But for a historian looking at the life of someone who has died, the same clues can lead to understanding.

As a daughter, my heart broke at the realization that digital records, along with the stories from those of us who loved Mom, were going to be the best way to be with her again, to learn from her again or to laugh again at her stupid jokes. But as a historian, my mind raced. If the only way to preserve her memories was to put together the pieces of her digital life, then we had to hack into her online accounts.

After a frantic hunt, my middle sister found a small pocket calendar in Mom’s desk. The back pages were filled with handwritten login IDs and passwords. I patted myself on the back for having insisted Mom record her passwords, and we sisters rejoiced … for about five minutes. At site after site, login page after login page, every attempt failed.

The only login and password combination that worked was for her Apple iCloud account, but she had protected it with two-factor authentication. We could see that her phone was receiving texts — texts from Apple containing the codes needed to get into her account — but we couldn’t unlock the phone, so we couldn’t see the code. I called a few high-powered techies I know from working at Stanford and living in Silicon Valley, but none of them could help. It seemed we would be locked out of everything.

Eventually I found a savior — a young employee at an Apple Store. I explained to him that I had Mom’s login ID (an email address) and the password for her Apple account, but I couldn’t override the two-factor authentication. He asked me to enter the login and password, and he grimaced when her locked phone lit up with the authentication code we could not see. Then his expression changed. “Let’s try her SIM card,” he said.

A phone’s SIM card is no bigger than the fingernail on your pinkie finger, but it is of vital importance. It gives your phone its unique identity, making it possible to associate the physical device with a specific mobile carrier and phone number. You can pop the card out of your phone by inserting a paper clip in the tiny hole you might have noticed on the side of your phone. Moving a SIM card from one phone to another is how most people move their phone number when they upgrade their devices.

The employee ejected the SIM card from Mom’s phone and put it in his own. His phone now had her phone number. We logged into Mom’s iCloud account again. This time we clicked the link that said we had not received the original two-factor passcode sent to the phone as a trusted device. We requested another be sent to her phone number. An instant later, his phone buzzed with the code. “O.K. to input this?” he asked. My heart pounded at the thought of this young stranger being with me when I peeked into Mom’s hidden digital life for the first time, but I nodded approval. He typed the code on the site.

Boom: We could see her Apple mail, her memos, her bookmarks and her photos. We had recovered a key to unlock her digital world.

At home, I put Mom’s SIM card into my husband’s phone so that it could receive texts sent to her number. Now, with her login ID and control over her phone number, I could impersonate her. At every website, I said that I forgot her password. The website tried to confirm her identity by texting a code to Mom’s registered phone number — and the code would go straight to my husband’s phone. Once I was logged in, I could then change both the password and the trusted phone number that would thereafter be associated with the account. Every time a page opened up with her name at the top, I felt a mix of elation and nausea.

It took hours, but I gained control of her email accounts, her Amazon account, her cable provider and the sites for her credit cards. We never did figure out the passcode to her phone, which means I will most likely never see the iMessages or other encrypted information. Otherwise, I now have access to almost all of her digital history.

After all that work to crack Mom’s accounts, I haven’t looked at them. It has been six months, but it’s still too soon. Looking through her digital life will mean remembering her before she was gone, back when I was a daughter with the luxury of being annoyed by her calls or texts, back before she or I understood in the visceral, never-going-back way I do now that it was all going to end. I haven’t even listened to the voice mail messages from her that I still have on my phone. I do know they almost all begin in the same way: with a pause and then her voice saying, “It’s just me.”

Leslie Berlin, a historian at Stanford, is the author, most recently, of “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.”

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You, Your Digital Assets and Planning Your Estate

You, Your Digital Assets and Planning Your Estate

You, Your Digital Assets and Planning Your Estate

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Featured Image: Photo by Marta Branco from Pexels

From assets like bitcoin to intellectual property like published articles or music, our personal assets are quickly moving beyond just physical properties like real estate to digital ones as we continue to increase our online activities. With social media giant Facebook looking to be saddled with more deceased user accounts than living by 2100, there is a need for any of us sharing photos with friends and family, publishing content, managing finances, or any of the other many ways we now utilize the Internet to for interaction, to think about what happens to our digital assets after we pass on.

Digital assets cover a wide range of components–hardware, password-protected accounts, intellectual property, domain names, monetized platforms and content, acquired or collected data, digital currency and so many more. They could also mean online mementos like photos, videos and music playlists. Given the dynamism of the digital world, the specifics of these asset classes is ever changing. But typically, if it exists in a digital form, is searchable (or discoverable) with metadata, and holds value, whether personal or to an organised entity, it is referred to as a digital asset. In traditional estate planning, a will or testament lays out explicitly how a person’s assets are to be divided amongst their surviving friends and family. An executor is often named to ensure the directives of the will are followed accordingly. If one passes without a will, they die “intestate” and the intestacy laws of their location determine how their assets will be divided. With digital assets, the lines aren’t as clear cut.

What happens to your “digital estate” when you pass on?

Relatively new and largely still unregulated, there aren’t sturdy structures around the mining and use of digital currencies across the world. While governments are still considering regulations and use, hackers are keenly interested in the over US$200 billion financial sector. Digital currencies are therefore held in highly encrypted systems and access often times limited solely to its owners.

“Death of cryptocurrency owners is one major way that most cryptos have been lost,” says Frank Eleanya, a Cryptocurrency Analyst based in Lagos, Nigeria.

In February, QuadrigaCX, Canada’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange lost access to US$145 million worth of bitcoin and other digital assets after Gerald Cotten, its 30-year old CEO and co-founder, died of complications arising from Crohn’s disease while traveling in India. His wife had no knowledge of the password or recovery key of the encrypted computer with which Cotten ran the exchange. In April, the company declared bankruptcy after filing for creditor protection having run into over US$150 million in debt.

“Often the owners of the wallets don’t share their keywords or passkeys with their loved ones, probably for fear of being exposed to hackers, because you might share it with a loved one and because they are not so invested in the market they may not be as meticulous as you,” adds Eleanya.

Besides digital wallets, cryptocurrencies are also stored in paper wallets, something referred to as cold storage, which is easier to pass on to loved ones. But sometimes, even these do not suffice. Many of Quadriga’s digital assets were held in cold wallets whose pass keys only Cotten knew. Understood, most pass keys are held in such close confidentiality due to increasing cyberattacks on cryptocurrencies. But lost cryptos are irrecoverable and, in some instances, something referred to as “probate by truck” can be effected. In this situation, “heirs” can claim property under the assumption that the deceased would have “wanted them to have it.” Ultimately, one can amass a fortune in digital currencies and without proper planning, lose all of it or not have it benefit their loved ones when they are gone.

How about other digital financial solutions like online savings and investment accounts, blogs that generate income or other platforms that directly or indirectly have monetary value?

Facebook and Instagram both offer two estate planning options to its users. Accounts can be memorialized if family or friends of the deceased contact the networks, or users can have their accounts permanently deleted after passing on.

For Facebook, memorialized accounts are marked with an indicator with birthday notifications or likes ceasing. Instagram memorialized accounts do not appear any differently and show up everywhere except the “Explore” page. Facebook also allows users to designate a legacy contact to manage a memorialised account. Instagram allows no access even to a deceased’s close circle. While Twitter will not grant a deceased’s family or friends access to their account, they deactivate accounts of users upon their demise if they are provided with necessary documents.

A thread that runs through each platform is that these requests must come from someone authorised by a will to execute such instructions or be set-up by a user before their death. There are chances that you know one of Facebook’s millions of deceased account holders and most likely still receive notifications about birthdays or friendiversaries. This can be disconcerting. But without clear directives for those left behind, social media accounts tend to live on indefinitely.

Digital content from platforms like Kindle, Amazon or iTunes, in tangible formats like hard or flash drives can easily be bequeathed to another person upon demise but with content you do not own (music, movies, e-books etc), they cannot be left to an heir.

So what should you do?

Ideally, one should be conscious of the terms and conditions of online platforms as you sign up and leave your footprints across the web. Find answers to the following questions and address them accordingly:

  • What applies to accounts created or data stored after one has passed?
  • Are these accounts and their data transferable?
  • Can they be accessed by next of kin?
  • What documents need to be presented as proof in the event that a next of kin tries to take over an account?

Arming yourself with this information better allows you to plan for how your online estate is managed after you’re gone. Disclosing passwords to online financial or social media accounts is also another way to handle your digital estate.

“The ideal thing to do is include it as part of a will,” Eleanya says about cryptos.

This can be applied to everything. Making provisions for what happens to your digital assets in a legally binding document like a will and even having a digital estate executor ensure that the directives are carried out is a sure-proof way to plan how your online business is handled when you’re gone in a way that is not only beneficial to your legacy but also to those you leave behind.

Ask Kip: Create a digital estate plan

What happens to Great Aunt Edna’s Snap Account?: Estate Planning for Digital Assets

What happens to Great Aunt Edna’s Snap Account?: Estate Planning for Digital Assets

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I don’t have a Great Aunt Edna and if I did, she probably wouldn’t have a Snap account but you, your parents and your children likely have Facebook accounts with cherished family photos and other digital memories. Our burgeoning online activity creates troves of so-called ‘digital’ assets, some of which may be every bit as valuable (if not more so) than your grandparents’ china and silver. At death, access to these digital assets poses many challenges.

The task of an executor has always been to identify the decedent’s assets, pay the decedent’s liabilities and debts, and distribute the decedent’s assets pursuant to the terms of the Last Will and Testament. Traditionally, this process generally involved a search of the decedent’s records. Accounts and bills were identified through stored records or subsequently received mail. An Agent acting under a Power of Attorney has similar responsibilities. Password protected accounts makes even identifying these assets harder.

A working definition of “digital assets” generally include digitally stored content, online accounts and files stored on digital devices, such as computers and smartphones. In addition, accounts managed and maintained on the internet, such as e-mail, social media Facebook, Twitter) online payments applications (PayPal, Square), online shopping accounts, and online storage accounts all constitute “digital assets.”

In 2014, we alerted our estate planning clients as to the importance of updating estate plan documents to give fiduciaries (agents under Powers of Attorney, Executors under Wills) the power to manage these assets. As of 2019, laws authorizing the delegation of such powers have matured. Many states, but not yet Pennsylvania, have adopted a version of the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA), which recognizes digital assets as property that can be managed preserved and, in some cases, accessed by third parties following death or incapacity.

For more information on managing your digital assets and the importance of having proper planning in place, see our May 2014 article, a recent Forbes article, and a useful summary of RUFADAA. Contact any member of the Auto Dealer Practice Group with questions about your estate planning.

Additional credit for this article goes to Andrew Rusniak, Esquire, McNees Wallace & Nurick LLC.

The overwhelming fear of ‘digital death’

The overwhelming fear of ‘digital death’

The overwhelming fear of ‘digital death’

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The internet is changing how we converse with the dead. While the bereaved have traditionally visited graves or burial sites to talk to deceased loved ones, some are now turning to digital spaces to continue their bonds with the dead.

Research has highlighted how some bereaved people use Facebook to talk to the dead, keeping them updated with family news by logging on and leaving messages with some expectation that their dead loved ones may read them.

Death-tech companies such as Eternime and LifeNaut now even offer ways for the dead to be digitally resurrected using artificial intelligence.

The dead are no longer hidden away, they are carried with us on our digital devices in the form of voicemails, WhatsApp messages, texts and photographs. But these social networks and messaging services were designed for people to stay in touch with the living.

Using them to talk with the dead is blurring the distinction between the social lives of the living and those of the “socially active dead”.

Taking comfort

As a sociologist I became interested in how everyday memories and messages received from loved ones take on new significance following the death of the sender. My research explores how these treasured digital possessions, available at a keystroke on everyday portable devices, affect how people grieve.

I interviewed 15 people who had inherited online digital memories and messages and found many took real comfort from the messages stored on social networking sites.

It wasn’t the profound or purposeful WhatsApp and text messages the people I interviewed found most comforting, but rather the every day messages – such as “I’m ringing the doorbell”, “speak later” and “I’m with you in spirit”.

One woman, Sarah* explained how she found comfort in the LinkedIn page of her dead aunt. Her aunt didn’t upload a photograph on the professional networking site, so there is standard grey outline instead, and the woman explained she found this “little shadow thing” poignant.

Issues around access and retrieval were of paramount importance to the bereaved people I spoke to – and any sense of comfort was always inextricably linked to securing and having control of the messages.

Many of my participants explained their fear of losing the data by either the obsolescence of the hardware or software. One woman, Emma*, described how she felt following the death of her best friend, when his Facebook page disappeared from the platform:

“Then one day I hadn’t visited his page for a while, and when I searched for it, it was gone. My heart dropped. I felt panicky, I went to pictures other people had posted of him, thinking I could follow the tags to find him, but they were gone. The pictures were just his face, with no way to get to him. It was like losing him all over again.”

The fear of second loss

Amy* whose sister had died, had taken great comfort in reading old messages and listening to answerphone messages her sister had left her. Amy told me how she’d purchased software to take the voicemails off her mobile and transferred onto her laptop:

“I bought some software … because I just couldn’t get the audio messages. I couldn’t save them. I wanted them on my laptop … they are my most treasured thing.”

I bought some software … because I just couldn’t get the audio messages. I couldn’t save them. I wanted them on my laptop … they are my most treasured thing.

Some people told me they were reluctant to upgrade their telephones, deeply concerned that the precious messages would be lost if they did.

Pam*, whose daughter had died, explained that she hadn’t upgraded her telephone for five years. She said losing the text messages and voicemails would be like “losing her again”.

There are some third-party tools that can assist with the transfer of these precious messages, but still many of those I interviewed told me they were reluctant to use them in case the messages are lost in the process. Pam explained that by transferring the data she felt that she would somehow lose part of the “essence” of her daughter.

This fear of second loss is a new phenomenon for those grieving in our digital society. While images of the dead stowed away in boxes of photos in attics may well fade or perish over time, they don’t form part of people’s everyday lives in such a socially active way as digital memories do.

The digital data of the dead is far more than code – it contains the digital souls of the deceased. While, for some, the internet provides comfort by enabling a continuing relationship with the departed, for others it is causing a new anxiety – the fear of second loss.

* Names have been changed throughout the piece to protect the anonymity of interviewees.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.