Changing responses to death in the digital age

Changing responses to death in the digital age

Death in the digital age – what happens to our status updates and selfies after we’ve gone?
Researchers Dr Paul Coulton and Selina Ellis Gray are analysing the ways in which western mourning practices are changing in the modern world thanks to the increasing amounts of personal data we leave online.

Selina Ellis Gray said: “Our deaths are now followed by the slow decay of a massive body of data, which include huge amounts created from regular social media use.”

As part of her interdisciplinary PhD, she is questioning what happens to all our tweets, status updates and selfies after we’ve gone and how can we begin to design for these remains.

Until the social media boom the popular understanding was the public mourning was in retreat in the west, with social and religious traditions no longer having such a uniform influence on the way we say goodbye. But in today’s Facebook age a new form of mourning has emerged. Selina Ellis Gray’s ongoing research explores blogs about grief, memorial pages on Facebook, tributes on Instagram, shrines on twitter, digital scrapbooks and support groups for the bereaved springing up in diverse and highly personal responses to loss. Decades of similar digital content is also decaying, posing new problems to those that are left behind to manage it.

Dr Coulton said: “In today’s digital age, when we die we often leave behind a digital legacy. Relatives are no longer only considering what to do with books, tea sets, vases and toolboxes but they are also thinking about online social remnants such as digital photos, videos, status updates and emails.

“While these ghostly reminders online are enabling new types of mourning practices, they are consequently presenting a number of challenges to the traditional role of custodianship as these remnants of digital life cannot be placed within rooms or on shelves in quite the same way as a piece of jewellery or a lock of hair.

“These remains are searchable, discoverable and open to reinterpretation such that the dead can return unbidden to haunt the living in unexpected ways.”

The threshold between life and death has also become a much more public event with the last status updates and final tweets of victims of events such as the Colorado massacre becoming global news. Selina has documented how such spaces online have become highly visited, with some gathering over 10 million views and daily visitors who consider these places as a positive focus for their loss. She hopes her ongoing research in this emergent area will have an impact on future technology design and also support services. Alongside her thesis, Selina has a number of publications forthcoming in 2014 and will be presenting at this year’s first ‘Death Online Research’ symposium with other leading experts in the field.

Dr Coulton said: “These changing responses to death – and the digital legacy we leave behind – are posing all sorts of new questions and challenges, not only for technology designers and professionals who provide bereavement support but also for society in general.”

Texts from the dead: Post-mortem digital communication has arrived

The different types of digital assets

Why do you need to consider the becoming of your digital assets upon your passing? Just because there are more than what you actually think. If you can’t list them all, chances are that they will not be listed by someone else, and precious heritage can finally be lost for everyone. Or, if there are things that you wish were deleted, but were not, your last message may not be the one you wished for.  Inside the different assets type, you have:

Business accounts: let’s say you own an account for any business. It’s full of your clients information,  invoices and different bills. These information are critical for your business partners, colleagues or the whole team. For a doctor, it may contain the life history of your patients, with full, potentially life-saving, information.

Social media accounts: obviously, you won’t be able to communicate with your network, but the social networks do have a treasure inside: old exchanges, pictures, videos and other assets. And they can be the base of an online memorial.

Financial assets: this one is quite self-explanatory. Banks are more and more accessible via web interfaces, and may have services storing online currency, like bitcoins. And we’re not speaking about the Amazon, eBay, Paypal websites..

and last but not least:

Personal assets: can you list the totality of your services? I guess not.. Pictures, videos, emails, texts, mms, smartphone apps, … And why not computers, locked by passwords, or medical records, legal files, …

Identity Theft Safeguard

Do You and Your Aging Parents Have a Digital Estate Plan?

You may be comfortable that your have your estate plan in order. You have a will, a durable power of attorney, a living will and a health care proxy. But do you have a digital estate plan?

In the past, we kept albums full of snapshots, vinyl records and shoeboxes full of correspondence. Now our photos are all on Flickr and IPhoto, our music is downloaded from ITunes and our correspondence is email via Yahoo or Google. Naomi Cahn, a law professor at George Washington University, stated that most adults have 20-25 accounts on the internet. And many of those accounts are for banking or investments.

Have you given instructions to your family on what to do with your internet accounts if you should die? And do they even know how to access those accounts? User names, passwords, internet addresses?

The family of Ricky Rash, a 15 year old who committed suicide in 2011, discovered how difficult it was to recover information from their deceased son’s internet account. In an effort to understand why he had taken his own life, they requested but were refused access to his Facebook account.

Facebook claimed that according to the Stored Communications Act of 1986 – the federal law that governs the protection of a person’s electronic data – even the account of a minor is protected from access by his parents or anyone else.  Other sites and providers interpret the legislation this way, making access all but impossible.

There are only five states that have taken any steps to help recover the internet data of a deceased person—Indiana, Idaho and Oklahoma legislation covers social media and blogging accounts, while Connecticut and Rhode Island legislation covers only email.

What does this mean for you? It is critical that you create a digital estate plan. The listing of internet accounts needs to be comprehensive. Information must include:

  • the name of the account
  • the contents of the account
  • the URL address
  • username
  • password
  • instructions for the disposition of the account including the person to oversee such disposition.

Digital Files After Death, What Happens to Your Digital Legacy?

Have You Completed Your Client’s Digital Estate Plan?

I’m sure you are comfortable that your clients’ estate plans are up to date. But have you reviewed your client’s digital estate plan? What is a digital estate plan? It’s a plan for the disposition of all your clients internet accounts once he or she is deceased

Experts have estimated that the average adult with access to the internet has more than 25 internet accounts! In the past, we kept albums full of snapshots, vinyl records and shoeboxes full of correspondence. Now our photos are all on Flickr and IPhoto, our music is downloaded from ITunes and our correspondence is email via Yahoo or Google.

And probably more important than that, a lot of your clients bank and investment accounts may be entirely online.!

And what happens if your client dies? Who has access to these internet accounts? And if they want those accounts taken off the internet how do they do it? You may discover that it is more difficult than you think to access their accounts or erase them from the internet

The family of Ricky Rash, a 15 year old who committed suicide in 2011, discovered how difficult it was to recover information from their deceased son’s internet account. In an effort to understand why he had taken his own life, they requested but were refused access to his Facebook account. Facebook claimed that according to the Stored Communications Act of 1986 – the federal law that governs the protection of a person’s electronic data – even the account of a minor is protected from access by his parents or anyone else.  Other sites and providers interpret the legislation this way, making access all but impossible.

There are only five states that have taken any steps to help recover the internet data of a deceased person—Indiana, Idaho and Oklahoma legislation covers social media and blogging accounts, while Connecticut and Rhode Island legislation covers only email.

What does this mean for your clients? It is critical that they create a digital estate plan.The listing of internet accounts needs to be more comprehensive than I originally recommended. Information must include:

  • the name of the account
  • the contents of the account
  • the URL address
  • username
  • password
  • instructions for the disposition of the account including the person to oversee such disposition.
Digital planning
Digital planning

There is a whole new industry that has been created to service your clients’ digital estate , a new digital estate planning service. Your clients can create an account and then enter their user names, passwords and wishes for each of their digital assets. They can specify an heir for each account; Legacy Locker will provide heirs with information after the account holder’s death is verified.

There are also online memorial services to celebrate your client’s life. These services enable your clients to create their own memorials before they pass away. Facebook and Twitter also offer these services for family members.

The importance of having a digital estate plan will increase as more and more of our assets (and access to assets) are online. Gradually laws will evolve to give family members access to deceased loved ones’ accounts. It is important to prepare your clients for the disposition of their digital assets now so that family members will not be unpleasantly surprised when they attempt to uncover them.

If you want to explore digital estate planning in more detail feel free to wander around.

Don't Let Your Digital Assets Die With You

Digital Estate Planning Law

The May 2013 issue of the Internet Law Researcher newsletter (which is available to members of the Duke Law community through Westlaw‘s GLILR database) rounds up a bibliography of legislation and articles related to digital asset estate planning. To locate the article in Westlaw Classic or WestlawNext, use the citation 18 No. 5 Internet L. Researcher 1.

Planning for death has always been an uncomfortable and difficult topic for most people, and the growth of social media and other online accounts has added a new layer of complexity to sorting out the affairs of the recently deceased. Author Ken Kozlowski describes the current situation as “a big mess” in which “the federal Stored Communications Act (SCA) [is] being cited as a reason for services such as Facebook to withhold access to deceased individuals’ accounts, passwords, stored photos, etc.” Five states have passed legislation related to control of deceased individuals’ online accounts, and undoubtedly more state legislatures will follow suit.

The Internet Law Researcher article recommends a number of publications from legal and mainstream sources, including the recent law review student note by Maria Perrone, What Happens When We Die: Estate Planning of Digital Assets, and the blog Digital Passing. The recommended resources offer tips for developing a plan to handle digital assets after death, and serve as a good supplement to the Goodson Law Library’s collection of estate planning guides, most of which do not discuss digital assets in detail.