After death: a technical guide

After death: a technical guide

When approaching the difficult task of accessing websites and online accounts, dealing with it is divided between two options: having the password or not having the password.

  • If you have a password – you can get in
  • If you don’t have a password, but have access to an e-mail account, in most of the websites you could click on “I forgot my password” and a link will be sent by e-mail, to create a new password. Once you have created it, you can get into the website / account
  • If you have neither a password nor access to an e-mail account, the dealings get more complicated, because they involve approaching the online services providers. Some are already set for dealing with death of clients and present clear policies and guidelines in this regard, but some are still grappling with it or have done so until recently. Twitter, for instance, published their policy only in August 2010.

Another element you’ll need to take into consideration is TIME. In certain cases, only a narrow window of time is available through which you could take care of the deceased’s digital legacy:

  • On facebook, for instance, at any moment someone might turn his or her profile into a memorial profile (your consent isn’t required and you’ll find yourselves locked out of the account – even if you have a valid password). Therefore, the first thing I recommend you do is download a copy of the profile’s content (for “how to” scroll down, under “Facebook”).
  • Some of the email services providers might terminate an account which hasn’t been used over a certain period of time, depending on their Terms of Use. Therefore I recommend that if you have the means to do so, go into the email account, just to create some activity and prolong the window during which you can make up your mind.
  • Sometimes you’ll have access to accounts only for a limited amount of time: if the deceased passed away while his / her smartphone / tablet / laptop / computer was still logged on, you would still have access through this device to his or her online accounts. But eventually you’ll be prompted to re-enter the passwords, and when you can’t provide one, you’ll be locked out of these accounts. Therefore, I recommend you take advantage of this access while you have it, and set as many new passwords as you can, to ensure you have independent access to the accounts – at least to begin with. Maybe later on you’ll decide to close the accounts, or not to go into them, but at least you’ll have a choice.

I know you already have so much to handle after the death of a loved one, and maybe his or her digital legacy doesn’t strike you as urgent, but unfortunately, by the time you do get around to dealing with it, it’ll be too late, and invaluable, precious data will be permanently lost – in a way which cannot be restored.
Entrustet used to have a wonderful blog, and in it a “Digital Executor Toolbox” could be found. Unfortunately, when Entrusted was purchased by SecureSafe, the blog went offline, which is a pity. It used to have useful information about how to close online accounts and delete digital assets after the user has passed away. I hope it will go online again. In the meanwhile, I have compiled a list here for your convenience. A click on each link will take you to the relevant page of the online service provider.
International companies (Israeli companies listed below) 

Twitter

“Please note: We are unable to provide login information for the account to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased.”

Gmail

“If an individual has passed away and you need access to the contents of his or her email account, in rare cases we maybe able to provide the Gmail account content to an authorized representative of the deceased user. …. Any decision to provide the contents of a deceased user’s email will be made only after a careful review, and the application to obtain email content is a lengthy process. Before you begin, please understand that Google may be unable to provide the Gmail account content….”

YouTube

Between the time I wrote this post as a draft and print-screened this page and the time I published this post, YouTube took their policy offline. Right now there isn’t an online policy regarding a deceased YouTube member’s account. I’ve sent YouTube a query about this and will update this post once I have news.

Hotmail

“The Microsoft Next of Kin process allows for the release of Hotmail contents, including all emails and their attachments, address book, and Messenger contact list, to the next of kin of a deceased or incapacitated account holder and/or closure of the Hotmail account, following a short authentication process. We cannot provide you with the password to the account or change the password on the account, and we cannot transfer ownership of the account to the next of kin. Account contents are released by way of a data DVD which is shipped to you.”

Linkedin 

“To close the account of a deceased LinkedIn member you’ll need to submit a Verification of Death form. Note: This form requires an email address registered to the deceased member’s account. Without this important piece of information, we will not be able to address your request.”

Myspace

This used to be MySpace’s policy, but they updated it in July 2012:

“We will only remove or preserve the profile of a deceased user at the request of the next of kin or at the request of the executor of the estate. Myspace will not allow access or update the log-in information for a profile for any circumstance… However, if you have access to the email account tied to the Myspace profile, you can retrieve the password by clicking www.myspace.com/auth/resetpassword“.

Facebook

“In order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone.”
My advice is: if you have access to the Facebook account of your loved one who passed away, the first thing you should do is download a copy of it (General Account Settings > Download a copy). If someone were to notify Facebook that the account owner has passed away, Facebook will block all access to the profile and you will not be able to get in – even if you do have the password. Facebook’s policy is controversial: anyone can notify that a person has passed away, not just members of his immediate family. Hence, the spouse / child / parent might suddenly find themselves with the profile turning into a deceased person’s profile, without their request. Once a profile is “memorized”, as they call it, only friends can see it and locate it in search results see update below, and some of the content disappears while some of it remains – and you have no control over it. Very little information is required in order to report someone as gone: Report a Deceased Person’s Profile

The only right reserved to members of his / her immediate family is to ask for the profile to be deleted: How do I submit a special request for a deceased user’s account on the site? and then “If you are an immediate family member and would like to request that we remove your loved one’s account from the site, click here“.

In February 2014 Facebook changed their policy in two regards:

  1. Following John Berlin’s appeal to see the ‘Look Back’ video of his deceased son, Jesse Berlin, Facebook now allows members of a deceased user to watch his or her ‘Look Back’ video. Please note: a request to see a Look Back video of a user who passed away equals a request to memoralize the account, even if this wasn’t your intention, so please make sure you understand the consequences of your act before making this request. If you are certain you wish for his or her account to be momoralized, or if the account is already memoralized, you can make the request here. Thank youDamien McCallig for highlighting this point.
  2. Facebook took this opportunity to also change the privacy settings of memoralized accounts: from now on, the content will remain visible as the owner defined it while he/she was still alive. Meaning: if certain content was made visible publiclicly, it will remain so. If certain content was made visible to friends of friends, it will remain so – unlike what the policy was up until now: that once an account was memoralized, all the content was visible to friends only.

A word about Facebook‘s policy of memorializing an account: Of course this is very personal, but I think and feel it is better to keep “running into” my dead brother’s profile on Facebook as if he were still alive, than to have his profile declared as a profile of a dead person. I do not wish for certain content out of his profile to disappear, as it will disappear without any of us having a say about what stays and what disappears – it is determined by Facebook’s policy only.

Ever since my brother was killed, he has received hundreds of friendship requests, and as far as I can tell, all are by people who realize he is dead. I am puzzled by this: Is it their initiative, or in response to Facebook suggesting him as a possible friend? Is it their way of showing their respect to him? Their way of expressing their sorrow over missing out the opportunity to be his friends while he was still alive? Do they expect their request of friendship to be accepted? Is there a bit of voyeurism in it – to see which content they will be granted access to as friends, that they couldn’t see before? How would they feel if “he” will suddenly approve their request, since it will be clear it was not done by him but by a family member?

Since approving a friendship request grants access to certain content which only friends can see, I feel no one has the right or authority to approve friendship requests but the deceased.

Israeli Companies 
None of the Israeli companies publish their policy regarding death of a client online. I gathered the following information from each one as a service to the readers of this blog.
Walla!
Walla! will grant you the password to the mailbox as soon as you follow their clear policy in this regard. Email them at: support@walla.net.il and ask for a copy of their instructions in English (In a nutshell, you will need to provide both proof of death and proof of your relation to the deceased). You should contact them as soon as you can: an e-mail account that hasn’t been used in 3 months might be closed by the company.
012 Smile 
Unfortunately, there is no point in contacting this company. They will only grant access to the e-mail under court order. Contact your lawyer instead.
Bezeq International 
You can notify Bezeq International someone has passed away either by phone: *3014 or by chat with a customer service representative. You will only need to supply the ID number and the last fourdigits of the method of payment of the deceased, and they will give you the e-mail password. You will need to provide a copy of a death certificate, oddly enough, not in order to gain access to the e-mail account, but in order to receive a refund for unused Internet services.
If you wish to keep the e-mail active, you can do so: the first 6 months for free, and from the 7th months onward by paying 9.90 NIS per month.
TheMarker Cafe
You can notify TheMarker Cafe by phone 03-5133697 or e-mail support@themarker.com, but they will only grant access to the account under court order.
013 Netvision
You can notify Netvision by phone: *3013 or by e-mail service@netvision.net.il. As soon as you present a copy of the death certificate, ID number and last four digits of method of payment, you will be granted full access to all the services the deceased was subscribed to – including e-mail and cloud backup. This is relevant however only if they had a private account. If they had a business account, only the owner of the company can contact Netvision, or the person registered at Netvision as the contact person for the company the deceased person worked for.
Tapuz 
You will have to have a Hebrew speaking person next to you, as Tapuz can only be contacted by a Hebrew form in their website. They will only assist you in gaining access to the account if you have access to the e-mail address that the person who passed away registered with. If you don’t, they will assist you only if there is a legal cause for it, or under court order.
Isra-Blog
Isra-Blog is part of Nana10 and can be notified about a death of a blogger by e-mail: israblog@nana10.co.il. They don’t have a consistent policy: in some cases, the blog will be taken offline. In other cases, a family member will be granted access to it – depending, among other factors, on the family wishes.
Nana10 
You can contact Nana10 by e-mail support@nana10.co.il, but access to the mailbox will only be granted under court order.
What is so frustrating about the long, complex dealings with the various Internet providers and their different policies – which includes heartache and helplessness – is that the people left behind after the death could have easily been spared all that – if only the deceased had left their usernames and passwords behind. They could have accessed their accounts without the provider ever knowing the user was dead. Several products (some of them for free) offer this exact service: keeping track of websites, user names and passwords, along with instructions of who may access what, are detailed in this post: Managing Your Digital Legacy.

Death in the digital age: Are you prepared?

Death in the digital age: Are you prepared?

When 15-year-old Eric Rash committed suicide in 2011, his family and friends wanted to know why.

In a bid to find answers, they went to Eric’s Facebook account, and after failing to guess his password, appealed to the social media giant to grant them access.

Facebook refused.

Giving unauthorised access to someone other than the account holder, the company said, was against its privacy policy.

The Rashes, who live in Virginia, tried to fight their case in court, but soon found there just wasn’t any legislation that covered the management of “digital assets”.

The family’s tragic battle is just one of many examples in which the internet has been shown to be woefully unprepared for dealing with death.

“Start Quote

People are beginning to realise what they could lose”

Paul Golding Co-founder, Cirrus Legacy

In the two years since the Rashes’ case, which led to the drafting of a federal law concerning the data of minors, few countries have issued clear guidance on the rights of families to access their deceased loved ones’ data.

And despite the fact that we put more of our lives in the cloud than ever before, few of us are preparing for our digital afterlife.

Reaching maturity

“We’re accumulating far more digital records in our lives than we are physical ones,” says Evan Carroll, who runs The Digital Beyond, a website which explores the subject of digital death.

“But we haven’t yet entered the age where we are taking the question of what happens to those records seriously.”

Since Mr Carroll and his friend John Romano first raised the issue of the digital afterlife at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in 2009, some prominent companies have developed policies for dealing with deceased customers.

Google has a step-by-step process allowing users to plan what they want done with their account, and will sometimes provide the contents of an email account which hasn’t left specific instructions, after a “careful review”.

The Cloud
Cloud-based computing is leading many to put personal data on the internet

Facebook and Yahoo have taken a stricter stance, and won’t hand over data without a court order, but the former allows relatives to choose whether they want to close an account or turn it into a memorial page.

However many web companies are lagging behind.

Cloud-based services which store our financial details, emails, music collections, social media interactions, photos and many other potentially precious items have different policies on data ownership, if indeed they have any.

As a result, it is more difficult to bequeath your iTunes library to a loved one than it is to leave your CD collection to them in a shoebox.

Digital wills

So why are we leaving our digital identities hostage to fortune?

Part of the problem is that internet users have tended to be too young to be worrying about their mortality.

But as the average browser gets older (the Office for National Statistics reckons almost 70% of all 65-74-year-olds in the UK are online), the idea of drafting a “digital will” is taking hold.

“We’ve seen several thousands sign up to our various membership packages,” says Paul Golding, who co-launched Cirrus Legacy – a service which allows you to record login details for all your online accounts and leave instructions to a nominated guardian – just a year ago.

“People are beginning to realise what they could lose.”

Three steps to a digital will

  • Carroll and Romano offer a three-step process for preparing a digital will, comprising:
  • Awareness – write a proper inventory of all online accounts, so that loved ones know they exist
  • Access – work out what details are necessary to gain entry to the accounts
  • Wishes – detail who you want to grant access to, and whether you want data destroyed, passed on, or sent to a third party

Putting details of your online life in an actual will is not an option, as they are publicly accessible documents, but highlighting where they can be found is a safer bet. Although with passwords and usernames changing all the time, the challenge is to keep the information up to date.

Digital estate planning, as the process of filing your details with a third party has become known, is an increasingly popular business, and many online services offer much more than simply making arrangements for accessing accounts.

Some, such as My Wonderful Life, allow members to write messages to be sent to their dear ones from beyond the grave. Others, such as the ifidie Facebook app, give people the opportunity to share a posthumous joke, or record a confessional video to be released upon their demise.

Cost of inaction

But it is the more conventional services offered by these companies which are proving vital to grieving families.

Most of the time, families don’t even know which online accounts their relative had signed up to, let alone the login details.

And the cost of not knowing even a simple email password can be enormous, explains Evan Carroll.

“Email serves many purposes, only one of which is the digital equivalent of our mailboxes,” he says. “It is the master key to many other accounts.”

But although leaving a list of your online accounts and passwords with a digital estate service might seem like a good solution, it is riddled with risks.

Putting all your online security details in one place puts you at the mercy of a successful hacking attack. And, as Mr Golding admits, if he received “correct information” from a court of law, requiring him to hand over a list of passwords, he would “have to comply”.

IfIDie App
Services such as the ifidie Facebook app offer the chance of posthumous fame

Furthermore, using the login details left by a dead family member is potentially illegal. The terms and conditions of most established online services state that nobody other than the owner is allowed to use the account.

Your loved ones may also not thank you for some posthumous revelations. Details of extra-marital affairs or a gambling addiction, which would otherwise have been taken to the grave, could be made available to mourners.

But although much of the digital will-making process is still being ironed out, Mr Carroll urges people to do something, even if it is just writing a manual list and putting it in a safe place known only to a spouse.

“Many people say ‘I don’t have anything that I care about online’,” he says.

“But you never know what will one day be of value to your family.”

Controlling your digital legacy

A survival guide for digital estate planning

Digital Death Survival Guide

 

Disclaimer

Presented at SXSW 2009 at the core conversation “Who Will Check My Email After I Die?” The general process that we recommend is to list your assets, define your wishes, choose someone to execute your wishes, and provide access and control to that person. Consider creating a spread sheet that lists your assets, defines your wishes, and contains access to those accounts.

Introduction

The List Your Assets section will discuss your digital possessions: photographs, videos, writing, and intellectual property that you want distributed after your death. The Define Your Wishes section will talk about how to specify what happens to your assets upon your death. The Choose a Digital Executor section will talk about how to choose someone to help execute your wishes. The Grant Access section will talk about making sure that the people that survive you will be able to access digital accounts and services. Finally the Services section contains a list of services that can help you.

Note: This is not intended to be a legally binding document. It is intended to be guides to help you better prepare yourself and your loved ones in the event of your death.

Laws that govern digital assets are in their infancy. What you need to know now is that data is governed many different ways and control and “ownership” of that content changes from state to state and from service to service. Currently control over your content is largely a matter of access and the terms of service.

List Your Assets

Many of us are creating a body of online content that will outlive us. Some of it will be valuable to your family and friends for either personal or monetary reasons. Some of it may be interesting to the people that will consider you their ancestor. Some of it will be complete rubbish.

The first step is to define your assets

  • photos
  • videos
  • writing
  • interactions
  • code
  • profiles
  • intellectual property
  • etc

One of the main challenges with managing your online content is the very notion of “ownership” itself. Additionally, there needs to be a separation between the communication medium and the content. You don’t own the email address (since the domain is only leased), but you DO own the content of your emails.

Many online assets are already governed by a “Terms of Service” (TOS). Content such as music may be strictly governed by Digital Rights agreements. Content uploaded into photo, video and social sites will likely be governed by a TOS. Blogs may or may not be governed. We suggest that you read the terms of service at each site and service that you use.

Commercial services that store your content need to be considered. Domain names are leased, not owned, and will be lost unless renewed. Hosting is a paid-for service that terminates after prepayment ends, often with the deletion of all data.

You will need to learn what you “own” and what your rights are before you can begin to give that content to your survivors. Additionally, you may want to create some communiques to your friends for distribution after your death. There are several forms that this could take. For example, you could:

  • send a batch of pre-created emails
  • post or send videos to friends
  • post messages to blogs and social networks

Define Your Wishes

Once you have defined what your assets are, you need to define what you want to do with each asset after your death. Archive it? Delete it? Give it to someone specific? While estate law varies from place to place, our culture seems to consider a person’s will as the definitive place where you define what happens to your assets after you die. We recommend that you discuss these assets with your lawyer when you are creating or modifying your will. Permanently archiving data is something that is still difficult to do. Expect to see services that offer this in the future, but currently there is nothing that we have found to do this.

Also, list content that you do not want archived and explicitly state that you want it deleted.

Choose a Digital Executor

You may benefit from naming someone your “digital executor.” This is especially important if you are responsible for the digital technology for other people (parents, spouses, children) who are less technically savvy. The myriad of accounts, usernames, emails, and passwords can complicate your survivors lives and shut down their connectivity and ability to communicate on the Web.

Even though the law does not recognize and formalize this position, it may be helpful to name someone and have them agree to help your dependents untangle the assets during the transition following your death. This person can also go through your asset list and execute your wishes, archiving, closing accounts, and deleting data as your wishes state.

Grant Access

Access to online accounts and services is of critical importance to each of us and our families. Unfortunately there are no formal or universal laws that govern online data. What we do know is that access provides control.

If a trusted person has access to your Facebook account after your death, then they can control what happens to the account. Also, a lot of content that you may consider to be yours is actually “owned” by the service or network that you post it on. Be aware that your content may be deleted once the host organization learns of your death. If you want the content archived after your death, you may need to give someone full access to the account.

The following are critical when addressing access to digital accounts and services:

1. give access to your survivors so that their digital lives are not held for ransom due to lack of access to shared accounts and services

2. give your executor or survivors the ability to carry out your wishes

Your legal will is a public document and is therefore not an appropriate place to store access to your online accounts and services. Additionally, laws concerning access to digital accounts vary from state to state. Some states do not recognize digital assets as part of a will. This forces us to find mechanisms that will give our survivors the access and control they need.

There are several approaches that you can take and several services that you can pay for to help with this issue. The approaches range from lo-fi to high tech, but whichever you choose, you must make sure that the basics are covered.

Create a centralized list/spreadsheet. Start by listing your accounts, such as:

  • registrars
  • hosting
  • email
  • social networks
  • photography networks
  • video networks
  • bookmarking services
  • blogs
  • finance and banking
  • bill pay services
  • online tools (e.g. Google Docs)
  • and many more
  • For each account, you will want to store the following items:
  • name of account
  • account number (if any)
  • description
  • URL
  • username / email address
  • password
  • specify whether the account is paid for or free
  • if a commercial account, specify how often the service is paid for

Many online services link to offline elements in your life. Bill pay services may keep your electric bill paid and your lights on. Mortgages are often paid for online. Make sure to specify the account number of these services so that your lights stay on and the bills get paid.