Settling the estate of a deceased family member has long been a taxing and emotional process. Among other things, we have personal possessions to sort through, probate court to visit, assets to distribute, and agencies to notify. As our lives become more and more connected online, we increasingly need […]
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.
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.
“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.
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 , , 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
Brits loose THOUSANDS of pounds as many fail to tell families about their online savings
Two thirds of adults with online pensions, investments, savings and bank accounts have failed to inform next of kin about their accounts.
That money could easily go missing unless family members know it actually exists and where it can be found.
The research from Lloyds Bank, produced exclusively for the Daily Express, is a wake-up call for millions who are failing to take enough care to document their financial affairs.
As we spend more of our lives online, we all need to prepare for what happens to our digital legacy when we finally die.
LOST IN THE NET
People take far greater care with their paper-based finances than their online accounts.
Many also keep family members out of the loop, with almost four out of 10 failing to talk to loved ones about their personal and financial affairs should they die, Lloyds’ research shows.
Some are more focused on trivial concerns, such as wondering what will happen to their Facebook page in the event of their death.
Lloyds’ director of bereavement, Paul Sheehan, says people need to take more care of their online finances as we shift away from paper: “Digital makes managing your finances easier, but it can make things more difficult for next of kin taking on your financial affairs when you die, as so many are financially unprepared for death.”
He says the first step is to talk to family and friends about your financial position: “This is especially true for online accounts, which would be harder to locate if your loved ones are not aware of them.”
Sheehan suggests preparing a written list of all your online and offline accounts and keeping it in a safe place where others can find it later: “This will provide important information for your family and friends and can help ease stress during what will be a tough time.”
Your digital wealth may include much more than just your financial accounts.
“Check the terms and conditions on any music, books and films you have purchased digitally to see if these can also be passed onto friends and family,” he adds.
You also need to produce details of any debts that will have to be paid out of your estate when you die, so that you do not bequeath a nasty shock for your loved ones.
Another worry for grieving families is meeting immediate expenses and debts after death, but Sheehan says banks and other financial services companies should be able to help with this.
For example, insurers offering over-50s life cover or funeral plans should quickly release funds to grieving families.
He says banks should be supportive in an emergency: “They may help loved ones gain access to the deceased’s credit balance to fund funeral expenses and other costs, such as inheritance tax, probate fees and confirmation fees, before all the legal paperwork is sorted.”
WAY TO A WILL
Writing down your wishes on paper makes them legally blinding, but too many Britons still fail to make a will, including almost eight out of 10 under-45s.
Sheehan urges everyone to write or update their will to avoid legal complications for loved ones: “You can draw up a will yourself, but it makes sense to use a will-writing service or solicitor instead.”
James Antoniou, head of wills at Co-op, says January is peak time for people to amend and update their wills: “Christmas brings people together, but it can also lead to conflicts and family fallouts while for others New Year is a trigger to get their finances in order.
“As a result we tend to see a peak in will amendments coming through in January.”
“When you experience those feelings and memories, it’s a little bit like losing someone all over again.”
This October, when NaKina Talbert glanced out the window of her temporary home in Guatemala and saw a volcano erupting less than 100 miles away, her first instinct was to snap a photo. “It’s pretty far away, but it booms like a cannon!” she tagged the image, with an arrow pointing to the volcano.
Talbert, a 58-year-old painter and former project manager from Dallas, Texas, then logged into her account on SafeBeyond, a digital legacy platform. Here she uploaded the image to her “vault,” a cache of photos, videos, audio messages, and letters she plans to have sent in installments to various family members after her death. There is the message for when her granddaughter (now 14) turns 21, the video for the first Christmas Talbert’s son (now 37) will spend without her, letters to her future great grandchildren (should there be any), and a slew of recordings from the bucket-list trips she has taken over the last year.
Talbert’s visit to Guatemala is her seventh such trip, though she doesn’t know how many more she will be able to make. According to her doctors, she wasn’t even supposed to live this long.
In 2014, Talbert was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy, or PSP, a rare and fast-acting neurodegenerative disease with symptoms similar to Parkinson’s. She soon began making preparations. She knew she wanted to leave her children and grandchildren recordings of her voice—when Talbert’s father died nearly 40 years ago, that was the thing she forgot first. “I can still see his face as clearly as if it were yesterday,” she told me. “But I can’t quite grasp his voice anymore.”
She found SafeBeyond about a year after being diagnosed. It’s one of a growing number of services, including DeadSocial and GoneNotGone, that allow people to posthumously send video, audio, and text-based messages to their loved ones at planned times. Users of these services could presumably schedule annual birthday videos to be sent to family members from beyond the grave, or write notes, as Talbert has, to be dispatched to future descendants they will never meet.
Most of these services require payment through a subscription plan or a one-time storage purchase. DeadSocial, one of the more prominent digital legacy companies, currently boasts over 12,000 users, according to its founder. It is unclear, however, exactly how many people have signed up across the industry.
Talbert, for her part, is also leveraging SafeBeyond to help plan her funeral, for which she has many requirements. One is that her whole family wear tie-dye, she explained, because she loves the idea that someone will drive by, see a bunch of people crying, and “think they all just got fired from Joe’s Crab Shack.” Her main hope, though, is that SafeBeyond will help her family through their grief once she’s passed away. She has messages planned to be sent throughout their initial year of mourning, including one her son will receive on his first day without her. To Talbert, these messages are a way to reach out and support her kin from the afterlife.
But if we can now regularly receive direct digital messages from deceased loved ones, how is that changing the way we mourn their passing?
Image: NaKina Talbert
It’s a newer wrinkle in a much older question—how is technology shaping our relationship with death?—and an emerging field of scholars have already devoted themselves to studying it. Preliminary research suggests consistent posthumous communication in fact can have a positive influence on recipients coming to terms with loss.
Debra Bassett, a doctoral candidate at the University of Warwick who researches the impacts of death in the digital world, believes that posthumous messages can help their recipients return to a place of grief when they need it most. In general, “most people that I have researched are finding these things a comfort,” Bassett said.
Still, the answer might vary depending on circumstance. In “Shadows of the Dead: Social Media and Our Changing Relationship with the Departed,” a study Bassett published earlier this year, she interviewed individuals who have revisited digital communications from deceased loved ones. She found that while re-reading emails or text messages has indeed helped many people grieve, listening to audio recordings is more complicated. A number of participants, according to the study, felt that “they need to already be having a ‘bad day’ to listen to voice recordings, and that this is done only occasionally and after much consideration.”
And for many people, no matter the mode of communication, receiving a posthumous messages might feel like an ambush.
Lori Earl, whose daughter Esther died of cancer at the age of 16, was shocked when she received an email from Esther around three months after her death. Earl was at a meeting when she received a text from her husband: Do not open your emails until after your meeting, it read. She soon understood why.
A few years earlier, it turned out, Esther had written a note addressed to her older self. “Future me,” it began, “I hope you’re doing better than present me.” Her parents hadn’t known about the letter, which had been sent via the service FutureMe, until it unexpectedly hit their inbox.
it’s current Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts. B)
— Esther (@crazycrayon) February 18, 2011
Soon after, a tweet appeared on Esther’s timeline: “it’s current [sic] Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts. B).” The tweet went live in February 2011, over six months after Esther died. No one is sure what service was used to post the message.
At first, her mother was jarred. Reading communications from her late daughter reignited her grief. “When you experience those feelings and memories, it’s a little bit like losing someone all over again,” Earl said.
The tweet still evokes raw feelings. But eventually the Earls came to hold Esther’s posthumous letter as a source of comfort. Reading it felt like conversing with their daughter, something they dearly missed. Even now, Earl said she finds herself going back to it. “We do read from it often, because it’s such an insight into who [Esther] was and what she hoped,” she said.
Earl, who has since memorialized Esther’s life in the bestselling book This Star Won’t Go Out, compares confronting posthumous digital messages to wiggling a loose tooth: It hurts every time, “and yet you can’t leave it alone.” Feeling pain, to her, is better than feeling nothing. And “while a letter may be painful,” Earl added, “it will always in some way be healing.”
“It’ll be the last new thing from him, which will be so, so hard. But at least I get a new thing, so many years after the fact.”
Peter Barrett, founder of GoneNotGone, says he wants to avoid posthumous communications catching recipients by surprise. Message recipients have to consent to see messages left for them through the service, Barrett noted. They receive an email that provides a GoneNotGone login, and can disable the service at any time if it makes them uncomfortable.
Barrett genuinely believes that companies like his will help people come to terms with loss. “If you know you are going to hear from someone again and again on your birthday, it becomes something to look forward to,” he said. “The person remains in your life despite not having a physical presence.”
Emma Rose, a 19-year-old college sophomore, would agree. When she was 12, Rose’s uncle died after a three-year battle with brain cancer. Today, she remembers him as a Cookie Monster tattoo connoisseur, a fan of Say Yes to the Dress who spoiled his nieces with vacations to Disney World.
An infant Rose and her uncle. Image: Emma Rose
Prior to his passing, Rose said, he wrote physical letters to be sent to her and her sister at various stages in their lives—one immediately following his death, another at his memorial service a month later, and a third to be opened on her and her sister’s respective wedding days. Rose has yet to read the third.
“With cancer, there’s always an element of mourning where you feel as if something’s been stolen from you,” she told me. “I’m not sure a single holiday or birthday has gone by where I haven’t had a moment of, ‘He should be here.’ Knowing that on my wedding day I won’t have to feel like that,” she added, “that a part of him will actually be there, is amazing.”
In fact, Rose draws so much comfort from the specter of this final letter from her uncle that it actually makes her nervous. “It’ll be the last new thing from him, which will be so, so hard,” she said. “But at least I get a new thing, so many years after the fact. Not a lot of people do.”
In the end, it seems, her uncle got his wish. Rose thinks his great fear was that she and her sister would forget him, since they were young when he died. He didn’t want to slip out of their lives; his analog letters were an effort to remain close to them. “In a way it’s kinda like he cheated death,” Rose said. “Like, ‘lol cancer you thought you were gonna prevent me from talking to my nieces on their wedding days? NICE TRY!’”
Her uncle might not have used an online legacy platform to schedule his messages—instead, Rose’s aunt is delivering his letters. But Rose’s experience is nonetheless analogous to that which might soon be shared by loved ones of those who turned to the likes of GoneNotGone, DeadSocial, and SafeBeyond to effectively curate their digital afterlives.
As for Talbert, she hopes to achieve what Rose’s uncle has. She wants her potential great grandchildren to know that their “crazy great grandmother” once sat in a hammock and watched a volcano erupt from her window. “I think people are most interested in things like that,” she said. “Just cool stories.”
Get six of our favorite Motherboard stories every day by signing up for our newsletter.