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How to Go Paperless With a Family Document Organizer
From marriage licenses to medical records, every family has important documents that they need to keep safe. Storing paper copies of these documents at home has been the go-to method for decades.
However, if you’re wondering how to organize important documents at home, you should be aware that there are some downsides to relying on paper documents. Paper documents are:
Prone to physical damage
Hard to locate in emergencies
Easy to lose
Difficult to share with loves ones
Benefits of Going Paperless
Going paperless allows you to transcend the limitations of paper documents.
Here are three of the most important benefits of going paperless:
You’ll Have One Trusted Location For All of Your Documents
Every family has a growing list of important documents to keep track of, ranging from tax records to birth certificates. It’s helpful to store all of these documents in one place. This way, you’ll know exactly where they are when you need them.
Going paperless enables you to store all of your documents in one secure, easily-accessible location, known as “the cloud.” If you’re not familiar with the cloud, it’s a global network of internet servers that offers scalable storage space and has made document management easier than ever. Unlike a computer hard drive that has a set storage capacity, you can increase your cloud storage space as needed.
Most importantly, you can access the cloud and your document management system from anywhere in the world, as long as you have an internet connection. For example, if your partner gets sick while on a family vacation, you can pull up their medical records for the doctor to reference. Likewise, if you’re at your attorney’s office, you can have all of your legal paperwork ready to go at the touch of your fingertips. No matter where you are, your documents are just a few clicks away.
You’ll Enjoy the Added Security of the Cloud
When it comes to storing your documents in the cloud, you may have some security concerns. According to a Pillar survey, 11.4% of respondents worried about identity theft. It’s important to realize that every cloud storage service offers a different degree of security.
At Pillar, we’ve made security the foundation of our service. Our cloud storage features the following safeguards:
Bank-level AES 256-bit end-to-end encryption
Multiple layers of security
Email alerts if unusual activity is detected
When you use Pillar, you can also rest assured that we’ll never sell or share your information with third parties. All of your paperless statements, tax documents, and even credit card information is protected. No one can access your documents besides you—not even Pillar employees or government entities. With Pillar’s top-notch security, you’ll enjoy complete confidence that your documents are safe.
You Can Share Documents With Family Members at Any Time
Privacy is imperative, but sharing access with your loved ones is too. In fact, it’s why we started Pillar. Our founder, Michael Bloch, was inspired to create a family document organizer after his mother was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disorder. During this health crisis, he struggled to find her important documents when it mattered most.
By going paperless with Pillar, you can make sure you never go through the same predicament. You’ll be able to access your family members’ documents with ease, whether you’re at the hospital by their side or halfway across the world.
If someone else in your family needs access to their documents, you can share it with them in a few simple clicks.
More Benefits of Digitizing Documents
According to our survey, over half of our respondents said that the previous three benefits of going paperless were the most important to them.
However, these aren’t the only benefits of going paperless. Here are a few more:
You Can Access Documents From Your Phone or Computer
These days, we can do just about anything from our devices, including:
Catching up with loved ones across the country
Calling ride-share services
Streaming the latest TV shows and movies
With everything else making its way into the digital space, there’s no reason why document storage should lag behind. Accessing your important documents should be just as easy as completing an Amazon order or checking your online bank account balance. When you store your documents on Pillar, it is.
Pillar can bring your document storage to the digital age. In turn, you can enjoy the modern convenience of accessing your documents from anywhere, any time.
You Can Reduce Your Impact on the Environment
Did you know that 40% of the world’s commercially cut timber is used for paper production?
Anytime you can cut back on your paper consumption, the planet will thank you. Shifting to a cloud-based storage system is a simple way to reduce your impact on the environment.
As an added benefit, you’ll no longer have to worry about how to organize paper clutter since you won’t have any.
You Can Preserve Your Documents in Case of an Emergency
Speaking of the environment, each paper document in your possession is always vulnerable to environmental threats, including:
In the event of a natural disaster, your physical documents could be destroyed unexpectedly.
By going paperless, you’ll always know that your most precious documents are protected from the elements, preserved in pristine condition in the cloud with Pillar’s online document management system.
You’ll Never Have to Worry About Losing Your Documents
Twenty-four percent of our survey respondents have requested a copy of an important document at some point in their lives. If you only have physical copies of your documents, you could find yourself in the same position. While you can always request a new birth certificate or Social Security card, the process is often tedious and time-consuming.
By going paperless, losing documents will be one less thing you need to worry about. Each of your documents will be safe and sound in the cloud.
What Important Documents to Keep in Your Family Document Organizer
Now that you know the value of going paperless, you may be wondering, “what important documents should I keep in a family document organizer?” The types of paperless documents you might want to keep could be endless.
Here are the three main types of documents you’ll want to upload:
From your family’s IDs to your parents’ estate plans, legal documents are very important to store securely. Your collection of legal documents may include:
Social Security cards
Power of attorneys
Estate plans and Trusts
Whether you’re caring for an elderly parent or seeking to implement their last wishes, it’s important to have their estate plans easily accessible and securely preserved.
With Pillar, you can store all of these legal documents and share them with doctors, attorneys, and other family members as needed.
In the event of a medical emergency, you always want to be able to access your family’s medical documents, including their:
Doctors’ contact info
Health insurance records
Healthcare account information
At Pillar, we make it easy for you to upload and categorize all of your family’s health records after scanning. If you need to pull them up in a medical emergency, they’ll be in the cloud ready to go. In turn, you can ensure that your loved ones get the medical care they need.
Whether you run a business, are planning for your retirement, or simply want to keep track of your finances, Pillar can help.
Our family document organizer is the perfect place to store your:
Online banking passwords
When tax season rolls around, you’ll have everything you need all in one place, clearly categorized and labeled.
If you need to share your financial information with a financial advisor, accountant, or family member, you can do so on Pillar in a few easy steps.
Who Needs a Family Document Organizer and Why Use One?
Everyone can benefit from having a family document organizer. No matter how old you are, your important documents deserve a safe, secure storage location. Pillar provides just that. It’s time to say goodbye to paper records and hello to a paperless workflow.
Here’s how Pillar serves different age groups:
If you’ve just had a baby, Pillar can help you keep track of your newborn’s birth certificates, vaccination records, electronic statements, and medical information. As your little one gets older, you can update their Pillar information with ease. With cloud storage, you can also increase your available storage space to meet your growing family’s needs. Best of all, your Pillar account will move seamlessly wherever life takes you and your family.
If you’re entering middle age, a family document organizer can make caretaking for your aging parents much easier. It will allow you to access their medical information in an emergency and to stay up to date on their estate plans.
If you’re in your golden years, participating in a family document organizer can make the caretaking process easier on your loved ones. You can also update your wills and trusts as needed. Best of all, you won’t need to search around your house for important documents anymore because every electronic document will be accounted for.
Why Some People Are Hesitant to Go Paperless
Despite the many benefits of going paperless, some people haven’t made the shift yet.
Here are their reasons, according to our survey:
They prefer to keep track of their documents themselves
They don’t think it’s necessary to organize their documents
They don’t think they need a family document organizer
They’re afraid of identity theft
Why You Should Use a Family Document Organizer
If you prefer to keep track of your documents yourself, it’s important to realize that a family document organizer allows you to do just that—just with improved accessibility, security, and shareability. The paperless process is easy.
Others shy away from using a family document organizer due to security concerns. As you now know, Pillar goes above and beyond to keep your information safe. Our cloud storage is arguably much safer than your current storage location.
Lastly, even if you don’t think organizing your documents is necessary now, you may it in a stressful situation. Getting your documents in order now can save you and your loved ones a lot of stress and hassle in the future.
How to Store Family History Documents Safely
If you’re wondering how to organize important family documents optimally, using a family document organizer is the clear choice. Despite this, only 6.5% of our survey respondents said that they’ve digitized their documents and store them online. The rest of our survey respondents said that they currently store their documents:
in a home safe
In a safe deposit box
In a folder
In several different locations
Thirty percent of these respondents also reported that their documents are not easily accessible. Since over half of the respondents said that they need to look for documents at least once a year, this inaccessibility poses a real problem.
By upgrading your document storage with a family document organizer, you can prevent these problems for your family once and for all.
How to Organize Your Family Documents With Pillar
If you’re ready to simplify your document storage, consider joining the 6.5% of people who are already using an online storage solution.
If you’re wondering how to go paperless with Pillar, just follow these simple steps:
Set up a Pillar profile for you or a loved one
Setting up a Pillar profile is easy. All you have to do is add your email, and we’ll walk you through the rest of the process step-by-step.
Add your documents
Once your Pillar profile is set up, you can start uploading your documents. To do so, simply take a photo of them with your smartphone or scan them to your computer. After that, you can send them directly to your Pillar account via text or email.
Organize your documents
If you’re wondering how to organize digital documents, don’t worry. It’s very easy to do on Pillar. We’ve even created categorized document checklists to help you organize your documents and ensure that you upload all the ones you need.
Invite your family and loved ones to collaborate
Once your Pillar account is ready to go, you can start inviting family members and loved ones to collaborate. Pillar allows you to create an unlimited number of plans for different family members. All you have to do is send them an invitation via email.
As you can see, using Pillar is easy. Now that you know how to store important documents with a family document organizer, you can upgrade your system and take advantage of all the benefits of going paperless. Most importantly, your family can enjoy the peace of mind that comes with having shareable, secure documents at the touch of their fingertips.
In an interview with Today’s Wills and Probate, Vicky Wilson, CEO and co-founder of Settld, opens up about how she formed the tech startup company Settld and her involvement in the #BereavementStandard.
Vicky co-founded Settld after more than eight years with Amazon where she worked in international marketing, product and logistics roles. She spent four years developing new business models to improve customer experience at the online retailer. She’s volunteered with the Quaker Social Action Funeral Poverty charity, and prior to launching Settld, she undertook work experience as a Funeral Arranger. Vicky co-founded Settld with mother Julie, a business consultant and registered funeral celebrant.
This month, end-of-life admin startup Settld jointly hosted a conference with Probate Network, along with Michael Culver, Chairman of Solicitors for the Elderly (SFE) and Ian Bond, Member of the Law Society of England & Wales Wills and Equity Committee and probate practitioners from more than 60 law firms to call for digital death certificates and cross industry standards to support grieving families.
The Bereavement Standard would speed up end-of-life account closure processes, standardise documents with acceptance of digital versions where possible, and oblige service providers to provide dedicated bereavement channels for customers to contact, with properly trained staff.
What made you set up Settld?
Settld is born from a personal experience of loss and the frustration at existing end of life processes. Late last year, my grandma died and it fell upon me and my mum to sort out all her affairs. Amongst other activities, we found ourselves calling around banks, utilities, pension providers, insurers, TV licence, broadband, mobile and other household services, to notify them of her death. It took 10 hours to do this, and more than 6 weeks to sort everything out. At that point, we realised there was definitely a need for an automated bereavement service to notify multiple companies about a death, in one go. And so started Settld!
What did you do prior to setting up Settld?
I worked for almost eight years at Amazon, across Retail, Amazon Web Services (Cloud Computing), Audible and Amazon Logistics – to get a broad sweep of how different functions operate. The last four years of my time there was spent developing new business models and services to improve customer experience, so Settld is making good use of all that past hard work and training. Prior to Settld, after my grandma died, I also volunteered for a UK Funeral Poverty charity, and undertook some work experience as a Funeral Arranger. I wanted to better understand how professionals in end-of-life care best support the bereaved. In addition, my mum and I went on a roadshow across the UK, talking to Celebrants, Funeral Directors, Probate Solicitors and Local Authorities to make sense of it all.
Vicky Wilson and her Grandma, June
Explain Settld’s objectives in three sentences
Settld’s mission is to help people navigate end of life processes, as easily as possible. We are starting by simplifying end of life administration for those who have to notify multiple organisations when somebody dies. Settld speeds up a process which can take weeks and months for people to complete at the moment.
How does it work?
Settld is a simple online form which takes minutes for people to fill in and upload the required documentation. We then use this information to notify all organisations in one go, and handle everything from there. Our service is free to members of the public and always will be.
Which institutions are you working with?
We interface with all major household and financial services providers, as well as social media players. We’re adding services to our list all the time, based on user feedback.
What does success look like for Settld?
Satisfied customers who are able to reduce the time and stress involved in what is currently a very protracted process.
What are your top 3 biggest obstacles?
1. At the moment, without a Bereavement Standard, we are only as good as the organisational processes on the other side.
2. Death certificates – some companies still demand the paper copies which slows up the process and causes stress for the bereaved when more than one company wants it.
3. Getting change to happen as fast as we want it.
How does it differ from the Equiniti Death Notification Service?
There is currently no one offering the services that we do. Tell Us Once is a useful government service, enabling people to close their public sector accounts and Equiniti handles a number of larger financial accounts. Settld’s focus is to help people close everything in one go: utility, banking, pensions, insurance, broadband, mobile, TV, entertainment subscriptions and all other household and digital accounts.
Tell us more about #BereavementStandard
At the moment, there is no standard process for companies to handle bereavement cases. Service providers ask for different documents and paperwork, take varying lengths of times to respond to bereavement cases, don’t always offer direct bereavement lines etc. You only have to look at the responses to our petition at change.org/BereavementStandard to see that there is a need for a unified approach across industry, to better support the bereaved and professionals who work with them. Once a Bereavement Standard is in place, it will make it easier and less stressful for everyone when it comes to account closure for those who have died. We encourage everyone to sign and share the petition, as each signature helps us drive change.
What happens to our online identities when we die?
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Esther Earl never meant to tweet after she died. On 25 August 2010, the 16-year-old internet vlogger died after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. In her early teens, Esther had gained a loyal following online, where she posted about her love of Harry Potter, and her illness. Then, on 18 February 2011 – six months after her death – Esther posted a message on her Twitter account, @crazycrayon.
“It’s currently Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts,” she wrote, adding an emoji of a smiling face in sunglasses. Her mother, Lori Earl from Massachusetts, tells me Esther’s online friends were “freaked out” by the tweet.
“I’d say they found her tweet jarring because it was unexpected,” she says. Earl doesn’t know which service her daughter used to schedule the tweet a year in advance, but believes it was intended for herself, not for loved ones after her death. “She hoped she would receive her own messages … [it showed] her hopes and longings to still be living, to hold on to life.”
Although Esther did not intend her tweet to be a posthumous message for her family, a host of services now encourage people to plan their online afterlives. Want to post on social media and communicate with your friends after death? There are lots of apps for that! Replika and Eternime are artificially intelligent chatbots that can imitate your speech for loved ones after you die; GoneNotGone enables you to send emails from the grave; and DeadSocial’s “goodbye tool” allows you to “tell your friends and family that you have died”. In season two, episode one of Black Mirror, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence – what was once the subject of a dystopian 44-minute fantasy is nearing reality.
But although Charlie Brooker portrayed the digital afterlife as something twisted, in reality online legacies can be comforting for the bereaved. Esther Earl used a service called FutureMe to send emails to herself, stating that her parents should read them if she died. Three months after Esther’s death, her mother received one of these emails. “They were seismically powerful,” she says. “That letter made us weep, but also brought us great comfort – I think because of its intentionality, the fact that she was thinking about her future, the clarity with which she accepted who she was and who she hoped to become.”
Because of the power of Esther’s messages, Earl knows that if she were dying, she would also schedule emails for her husband and children. “I think I would be very clear about how many messages I had written and when to expect them,” she adds, noting they could cause anxiety for relatives and friends otherwise.
Yet while the terminally ill ponder their digital legacies, the majority of us do not. In November 2018, a YouGov survey found that only 7% of people want their social media accounts to remain online after they die, yet it is estimated that by 2100, there could be 4.9bn dead users on Facebook alone. Planning your digital death is not really about scheduling status updates for loved ones or building an AI avatar. In practice, it is a series of unglamorous decisions about deleting your Facebook, Twitter and Netflix accounts; protecting your email against hackers; bestowing your music library to your friends; allowing your family to download photos from your cloud; and ensuring that your online secrets remain hidden in their digital alcoves.
“We should think really carefully about anything we’re entrusting or storing on any digital platform,” says Dr Elaine Kasket, a psychologist and author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. “If our digital stuff were like our material stuff, we would all look like extreme hoarders.” Kasket says it is naive to assume that our online lives die with us. In practice, your hoard of digital data can cause endless complications for loved ones, particularly when they don’t have access to your passwords.
“I cursed my father every step of the way,” says Richard, a 34-year-old engineer from Ontario who was made executor of his father’s estate four years ago. Although Richard’s father left him a list of passwords, not one remained valid by the time of his death. Richard couldn’t access his father’s online government accounts, his email (to inform his contacts about the funeral), or even log on to his computer. For privacy reasons, Microsoft refused to help Richard access his father’s computer. “Because of that experience I will never call Microsoft again,” he says.
Our devices capture so much stuff, we don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here
Compare this with the experience of Jan-Ole Lincke, a 24-year-old pharmaceutical worker from Hamburg whose father left up-to-date passwords behind on a sheet of paper when he died two years ago. “Getting access was thankfully very easy,” says Lincke, who was able to download pictures from his father’s Google profile, shut down his email to prevent hacking, and delete credit card details from his Amazon account. “It definitely made me think about my own [digital legacy],” says Lincke, who has now written his passwords down.
Yet despite growing awareness about the data we leave behind, very few of us are doing anything about it. In 2013, a Brighton-based company called Cirrus Legacy made headlines after it began allowing people to securely leave behind passwords for a nominated loved one. Yet the Cirrus website is now defunct, and the Guardian was unable to reach its founder for comment. Clarkson Wright & Jakes Solicitors, a Kent-based law firm that offered the Cirrus service to its clients, says the option was never popular.
“We’ve been aware for quite a period now that the big issue for the next generation is digital footprints,” says Jeremy Wilson, head of the wills and estates team at CWJ. “Cirrus made sense and ticked a lot of boxes but, to be honest, not one client has taken us up on it.”
Wilson also notes that people don’t know about the laws surrounding digital assets such as the music, movies and games they have downloaded. While many of us assume we own our iTunes library or collection of PlayStation games, in fact, most digital downloads are only licensed to us, and this licence ends when we die.
What we want to do and what the law allows us to do with our digital legacy can therefore be very different things. Yet at present it is not the law that dominates our decisions about digital death. “Regulation is always really slow to keep up with technology,” says Kasket. “That means that platforms and corporations like Facebook end up writing the rules.”
In 2012, a 15-year-old German girl died after being hit by a subway train in Berlin. Although the girl had given her parents her online passwords, they were unable to access her Facebook account because it had been “memorialised” by the social network. Since October 2009, Facebook has allowed profiles to be transformed into “memorial pages” that exist in perpetuity. No one can then log into the account or update it, and it remains frozen as a place for loved ones to share their grief.
The girl’s parents sued Facebook for access to her account – they hoped to use it to determine whether her death was suicide. They originally lost the case, although a German court later granted the parents permission to get into her account, six years after her death.
“I find it concerning that any big tech company that hasn’t really shown itself to be the most honest, transparent or ethical organisation is writing the rulebook for how we should grieve, and making moral judgments about who should or shouldn’t have access to sensitive personal data,” says Kasket. The author is concerned with how Facebook uses the data of the dead for profit, arguing that living users keep their Facebook accounts because they don’t want to be “locked out of the cemetery” and lose access to relatives’ memorialised pages. As a psychologist, she is also concerned that Facebook is dictating our grief.
“Facebook created memorial profiles to prevent what they called ‘pain points’, like getting birthday reminders for a deceased person,” she says. “But one of the mothers I spoke to for my book was upset when her daughter’s profile was memorialised and she stopped getting these reminders. She was like, ‘This is my daughter, I gave birth to her, it’s still her birthday’.”
While Facebook users now have the option to appoint a “legacy contact” who can manage or delete their profile after death, Kasket is concerned that there are very few personalisation options when it comes to things like birthday reminders, or whether strangers can post on your wall. “The individuality and the idiosyncrasy of grief will flummox Facebook every time in its attempts to find a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says.
Matthew Helm, a 27-year-old technical analyst from Minnesota, says his mother’s Facebook profile compounded his grief after she died four years ago. “The first year was the most difficult,” says Helm, who felt some relatives posted about their grief on his mother’s wall in order to get attention. “In the beginning I definitely wished I could just wipe it all.” Helm hoped to delete the profile but was unable to access his mother’s account. He did not ask the tech giant to delete the profile because he didn’t want to give it his mother’s death certificate.
Conversely, Stephanie Nimmo, a 50-year-old writer from Wimbledon, embraced the chance to become her husband’s legacy contact after he died of bowel cancer in December 2015. “My husband and I shared a lot of information on Facebook. It almost became a bit of an online diary,” she says. “I didn’t want to lose that.” She is pleased people continue to post on her husband’s wall, and enjoys tagging him in posts about their children’s achievements. “I’m not being maudlin or creating a shrine, just acknowledging that their dad lived and he played a role in their lives,” she explains.
Nimmo is now passionate about encouraging people to plan their digital legacies. Her husband also left her passwords for his Reddit, Twitter, Google and online banking accounts. He also deleted Facebook messages he didn’t want his wife to see. “Even in a marriage there are certain things you wouldn’t want your other half to see because it’s private,” says Nimmo. “It worries me a little that if something happened to me, there are things I wouldn’t want my kids to see.”
When it comes to the choice between allowing relatives access to your accounts or letting a social media corporation use your data indefinitely after your death, privacy is a fundamental issue. Although the former makes us sweat, the latter is arguably more dystopian. Dr Edina Harbinja is a law lecturer at Aston University, who argues that we should all legally be entitled to postmortem privacy.
If we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us
“The deceased should have the right to control what happens to their personal data and online identities when they die,” she says, explaining that the Data Protection Act 2018 defines “personal data” as relating only to living people. Harbinja says this is problematic because rules such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation don’t apply to the dead, and because there are no provisions that allow us to pass on our online data in wills. “There can be many issues because we don’t know what would happen if someone is a legacy contact on Facebook, but the next of kin want access.” For example, if you decide you want your friend to delete your Facebook pictures after you die, your husband could legally challenge this. “There could be potential court cases.”
Kasket says people “don’t realise how much preparation they need to do in order to make plans that are actually able to be carried out”. It is clear that if we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us. “What one person craves is what another person is horrified about,” says Kasket.
How close are we to a Black Mirror-style digital afterlife?
Esther Earl continued to tweet for another year after her death. Automated posts from the music website Last.fm updated her followers about the music she enjoyed. There is no way to predict the problems we will leave online when we die; Lori Earl would never have thought of revoking Last.fm’s permissions to post on her daughter’s page before she died. “We would have turned off the posts if we had been able to,” she says.
Kasket says “the fundamental message” is to think about how much you store digitally. “Our devices, without us even having to try, capture so much stuff,” she says. “We don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here any more.”
I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone.
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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.
[As technology advances, will it continue to blur the lines between public and private? Sign up for Charlie Warzel’s limited-run newsletter to explore what’s at stake and what you can do about it.]
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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