Who Gets Your Data After Death? Accessing and Managing a Deceased Person’s Digital Remnants

Who Gets Your Data After Death? Accessing and Managing a Deceased Person’s Digital Remnants

Who Gets Your Data After Death? Accessing and Managing a Deceased Person’s Digital Remnants

Click here to view original web page at Who Gets Your Data After Death? Accessing and Managing a Deceased Person’s Digital Remnants

When a loved one passes away, dealing with the mundane little things is an unfortunate, and often headache-inducing, necessity. Canceling a deceased loved one’s bills and magazine subscriptions, dealing with their financial situations… And now you have to worry about your loved one’s digital affairs as well. You have to account for everything from their email inboxes to their Facebook account, and the data they left behind. What do you do with it all?

There aren’t many clear or easy ways for people to transfer their digital assets after they’ve passed on. This includes things like their iTunes media library, or even just the credentials needed to access the departed’s various online accounts. Some people have started to wonder if they should include things like passwords to their multitudes of online accounts in their wills.

It can be difficult to successfully petition the likes of Google or Apple to release information on users who have passed away. This is often true regardless of your relation to the deceased. And social media platforms keep a tight leash on their users’ login credentials, even after they’ve passed on.

Accessing Data From a Deceased Loved One’s Electronic Devices

On occasion, we here at Gillware receive calls from people looking to have data retrieved from a phone or tablet belonging to a deceased loved one. Usually all they’re looking for are photos and contacts belonging to the deceased—photos to remember them by, and friends to notify of their passing. Sometimes this data is very difficult to get a hold of outside of a data recovery lab. This is especially true when dealing with mobile devices.

When you die, all of your data stays right where you left it. Making sure your loved ones can access the data you leave behind isn’t something many of us plan for. This can leave your loved ones in a bind when you pass away and they have to deal with your affairs—both analog and digital. The trend in data storage, especially among mobile devices, is encryption and total data security. If you don’t plan ahead, accessing the data you’ve left behind on your phone or synced with your Apple or Google account can prove difficult, or even nigh-impossible, for your loved ones.

Below are some tips for retrieving data from mobile devices and computers after their users have passed on. If you cannot retrieve the data on your own or with help from Apple or Google, though, the experts at Gillware Data Recovery and Gillware Digital Forensics can help. Our data recovery and forensic engineers have often assisted people in retrieving data from phones, computers, and other mobile devices belonging to deceased loved ones. In these situations, the data we recover often helps bring much-needed closure to the deceased person’s grieving family and friends.

Accessing a Deceased Loved One’s iPhone

apple logo

Apple iPhones are, unfortunately, notoriously difficult to access in the event of their owners’ passing. Unlike many Android phone models, iPhones do not have (often unencrypted) microSD cards you can take out of the phone. All of the data resides within the encrypted flash memory chip built into the device. You can’t pick the lock or bust down the door, metaphorically speaking. Either you know the passcode that gives you access to the data on the phone, or you don’t. Your iPhone does not send your passcode directly to some giant password database at Apple HQ. Only the user—and anybody else they may have told—knows their own iPhone passcode.

Apple’s data protection policies, especially their encryption policies, are a harsh mistress. You cannot appeal to an iPhone’s reason or emotion, because it has none. Apple iPhones are designed to be virtually unhackable without taking the most extreme of measures. Each successive model is more unhackable than the last. That’s just the way these things are—and even appealing to Tim Cook can’t change that.

However, while Apple can’t help you access your loved one’s iPhone after they’ve passed on, their Apple ID, iTunes, and iCloud accounts present a much less insurmountable goal. These accounts often hold data that is synchronized between the owner’s iPhone, iPad, and other devices. Access to these accounts is often easier to gain than access to the iPhone itself.

To gain access to a deceased loved one’s Apple ID, iTunes, or iCloud account information, you can contact Apple Support. Apple Support will ask for identifying information, such as a death certificate of the user, and proof of relation. Apple Support does, of course, often err on the side of caution when it comes to releasing information on another user’s account.

Accessing a Deceased Loved One’s Android Mobile Phone

If your deceased loved one owned an Android mobile phone, your options are less limited. Depending on the model of phone and version of the Android operating system, you may have some luck using one of these methods to bypass the passcode or pattern lock.

Many Android mobile phones also store some of the user’s data on a small microSD card inside the phone. You can easily remove the microSD card, place it into an adapter, and plug it into a computer, even if you can’t access the phone it belonged to. Not all mobile phones come with a microSD card preinstalled, however. In addition, how much data the user had on the SD card depends on how the user had their phone set up.

Owners of Android phones often have their phones tied to a Google account. In these cases, some data on the phone, such as contacts or photos, may be synchronized with the user’s Google Drive. Like with Apple, you can contact Google to access your loved one’s account. In the interest of protecting user privacy, Google asks for plenty of identifying information about both you and your loved one before they decide whether to comply with your request.

Requesting access to a deceased person’s Google account
Requesting access to a deceased person’s account on

Some of the information Google requires includes your name, mailing address, email address, the Google account username or Gmail address of your loved one, their death certificate, and an example of an email conversation between you and the deceased.

Requesting data from a loved one’s Google account is a two-part system. Google will review your request and may request a court order before moving onto the second step.

Accessing a Deceased Loved One’s Home Computer

Unlike with mobile phones, getting into your loved one’s computer to recover the files and documents they left behind proves much less of a challenge. Even if you don’t know the password to their user account, accessing the data on a computer is downright trivial. You can access their files from another account on the PC. Or, if you don’t have one, you can remove the hard drive from the PC and view the data on it on another computer using a hard disk drive enclosure or USB adapter cable. These methods all work, unless the data on the drive has been encrypted. When you encrypt data, it is impossible to make sense of it without the proper password to unlock the data (of course, if encryption were easy to circumvent, there wouldn’t be much point in having it).

This covers most of the data a deceased loved one will have lying on their physical devices once they pass on. But what about everything they’ve left behind on the Internet? What happens to it? Can you get to it?

What Happens to Your Social Media Accounts After Death?

The people using social media to stay abreast of current events, share things that are happening in their lives, and keep in touch with their families and friends number in the billions. Between Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, and various other platforms, people are accruing social media presences at an accelerating rate. When a user stops using an account, it just stays there. After all, your social media account won’t know when you’re dead. It can be unsettling, to say the least, to know that a family member or friend’s social media accounts are floating around through cyberspace as if nothing has changed.

All social media platforms highly value the privacy of their users, even their deceased users. As seen above with Google and Apple, the platforms holding onto your data, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., are reticent to release it to just anybody. (And in this case, family and friends count as “just anybody”.)

In general, social media platforms have no interest in providing other people with the proverbial keys to the kingdom, even after a user has passed on. However, social media platforms do have protocol in place regarding deceased users and what can be done to their accounts. Their protocol tends to be stringent, as many platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have fallen victim to celebrity death hoaxes in the past.

Some social media platforms have policies in place allowing people who were close to a deceased user to make limited decisions about what happens to their account after they have passed on. These include things like Facebook and Instagram’s memorial accounts. For the most part, though, social media platforms simply lock or deactivate the deceased user’s account.

Setting Up a Facebook Memorial Account

Facebook’s policy regarding deceased users allows for deceased users’ accounts to be transformed into “memorial accounts.” The deceased user is not treated as an “active” user and does not appear on potential friends lists for other users and other public spaces, although anything the user shared remains in place. Friends and family of the deceased user can post on the wall of the deceased and share memories of them.

Nobody can log into the deceased user’s account or alter any information on their account. However, if the user had defined a legacy contact prior to their passing, the legacy contact is allowed limited access to moderate the memorial account, and can request to download a copy of the account. However, they will not have access to the user’s private messages or be able to add or remove friends.

Only the user themselves can designate a legacy contact. In your Facebook account settings, you can choose a legacy contact, arrange to have your account memorialized after your death, or request to have your account deleted after you pass on.

A verified immediate family member on Facebook can request to have their departed loved one’s account memorialized or permanently deleted by contacting Facebook Support.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has a similar policy, with memorial accounts of its own for deceased users. However, unlike Facebook, users cannot arrange to have their account memorialized before they pass on. Instead, a relative of the deceased user must contact Instagram and provide a copy of the user’s death certificate.

Deactivating a Deceased User’s Twitter Account

Unlike Facebook, Twitter has no options for “memorializing” deceased users’ accounts. But like Facebook, Twitter refuses to share login credentials for a deceased user’s account, so nobody can post on their behalf or read through their direct messages. Twitter will deactivate the account, which puts it in a queue for permanent deletion.

If you have login credentials to the deceased user’s account, you can simply deactivate their account just as easily as you would your own. If you do not know their credentials, though, you must go through Twitter Support. To request the deactivation of a deceased user’s account, you must fill out Twitter Support’s Privacy Form. To prevent abuse of this feature, Twitter requires you to provide information about yourself and the user. This includes a copy of their ID and your ID, and may include a Power of Attorney authorizing you to act on their behalf. If you meet these criteria, Twitter will honor your request to deactivate the deceased user’s account.

Removing LinkedIn Profiles for Deceased Users

Like any online account, nothing automatically happens to your LinkedIn account when you die. This can make it distressing for your loved ones, coworkers, or classmates if, after your death, LinkedIn serves up your profile to them in a “People You Might Want to Link To” email.

LinkedIn Help requires a friend or relative of the deceased to go through a rather involved process to close a LinkedIn profile for a deceased user. LinkedIn allows anybody to submit the form to remove the profile of a user who has passed on. However, since LinkedIn asks for you to state your relationship to the deceased, they will likely deny any request made by someone who is not close to the deceased.

Deactivating a Deceased Google User’s Account

You can request to have a deceased loved one’s Google account, including their Google+ page, Google Drive, Gmail inbox, and YouTube account, deleted by contacting Google Support. You will have to go through many of the same steps as you would when trying to access data stored on a loved one’s Google account as we discussed earlier. Google is more likely to honor a request to simply deactivate a deceased user’s account altogether than to release data from or provide access to the account. Understandably, deactivating a deceased user’s account is less of a breach of privacy than sharing their data.

Planning for the Future: Keeping Your Data Manageable and Accessible After Death

Image source:

Losing a loved one is painful enough. We wish that dealing with the myriad things left behind in their absence were easier. Almost nobody likes thinking about mortality. Even fewer people relish the thought of dealing with everything their deceased loved one left behind.

Throw in our swiftly-accumulating social media accounts in the mix and things get uglier. Your grieving loved ones quickly become inundated with a flood of tiring and frustrating work as they find and deactivate the roughly half-dozen accounts the average person has today.

You can ensure that dealing with your digital affairs when you pass on doesn’t put your loved ones through unnecessary layers of bureaucracy by creating a digital estate plan.

Estate planning is an important part of making sure everything goes smoothly after you’ve shed your mortal coil. Estate planning includes writing up a Last Will and Testament, financial or health care Power of Attorney, and other documents. In the modern age, what to do with all your digital remains has to be taken into consideration as well.

A digital estate plan is, as its name suggests, a plan for your digital estate—the online data and digital documentation and belongings you’ve accumulated over the years. Your digital estate encompasses everything from digital financial records to your online accounts. Keeping your digital accounts accessible after death is part of having a good digital estate plan.

Creating a Digital Estate Plan

A digital estate plan will help your family deal with whatever you leave behind when you pass on. This includes accessing and appropriately managing your online accounts, determining whether any of your digital property has any financial value that needs to be reported, and distributing and transferring any digital assets. A digital estate plan can even keep you and your family safe from “ghosting”, or identity theft of deceased persons.

Planning your digital estate involves tallying up all of your digital records and online accounts. This includes all of your data storage hardware in addition to your online accounts. Once you’ve made a list of your digital assets, you decide what should be done with each, just as you would with your physical assets.

Some people recommend creating a separate “digital will” for your digital assets. In your will, you can appoint a digital executor. A digital executor will manage your digital estate, just like an executor manages your physical estate.

However, while Wisconsin has laws in place regarding “digital asset custodians”, not all states have legislation regarding digital estate planning. And as a result, your digital executor may not be legally recognized. Despite the legal limbo, though, appointing a digital executor can still make dealing with your estate much easier. A digital estate plan is still of great use, even if you cannot formalize it in a legally binding document.

Using Password Management Tools to Manage Your Digital Estate

We here at Gillware recommend that you store your passwords in a safe, secure place. Common choices are a locked file cabinet or a safe or safety deposit box. Only your trusted loved ones should be able to access it in the event of your death. The easiest and most convenient way to do this is with a password manager, such as KeePass.

With KeePass, you can store a digital record of all your online and device passwords in a database file. This includes anything from email, social media accounts, and streaming and data storage accounts to your smartphone’s passcode. With your password credentials in hand, your loved ones can easily deal with the digital cruft that built up over the course of your life.

Of course, this allows your loved ones to see all of the data on your accounts. You may want to exercise prudence in what login credentials you make available to your heirs.

There are many options for you to choose from to make your password database file accessible only to the right people. To make sure your loved ones can get to the file itself, leave the database on a flash drive or burn it to a CD. The next step is ensuring that only the right people have the master password to unlock the database.

Whatever you do, proactively planning your digital estate can make things much easier on your loved ones once you’ve moved on.

Keep in mind that we here at Gillware are data recovery and IT experts, not probate law experts. To plan your digital estate, discuss the matter with your estate lawyer, just as you would to plan your physical estate.

If This Was Your Last Tweet, What Would It Say?

If This Was Your Last Tweet, What Would It Say?

If This Was Your Last Tweet, What Would It Say?

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If This Was Your Last Tweet, What Would It Say?

He smelled the garden, the yellow shield of light smote his eyes, and he whispered, “Life is so beautiful. Yes, he thought, if I can die saying, “Life is so beautiful,” then nothing else is important.

What would you like your last words to be?

When Sir Isaac Newton died, he was humble. He said:

“I don’t know what I may seem to the world. But as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself now and then in finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than the ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

According to Steve Jobs’ sister Mona, the Apple founder’s last words were:

“Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.

To Boldly Post The The Final Tweet

Leonard Nimoy, actor. These may not be his last words, but Nimoy’s last tweet was

 LLAP - Live Long And Prosper

The final words of the famous, infamous and just plain ordinary who tweet are being immortalised forever after their deaths through a project called, The Tweet Hereafter.

The Tweet Hereafter is an experimental project by Jamie Forrest and Michael McWatters. As they say on their site:

The Tweet Hereafter is a collection of last tweets by notable, newsworthy, famous, or infamous people. It was inspired by the revelation that, in the age of social media, those of us who post will ultimately leave behind a final message, intentional or not. And, unlike in times past, we won’t enjoy the luxury of having our last words rewritten to make them memorable or to deepen their meaning.

Here are some of the final tweets listed on The Tweet Hereafter:

Social Media Is Changing How We Grieve

In previous posts, I have looked how grief is expressed on Facebook. Recently, I looked at how people use Twitter to post messages expressing loss. What’s interesting to see is how people respond to the Twitter feeds of these individuals who have sadly passed away.

What do you think about this platform? Is this just morbid voyeurism?

Pause Before Post!

While it makes curious reading, what it reminds me is that we build our digital legacy each day. We construct what people will read online after our deaths post by post, tweet by tweet. Some of the last words of the famous do not reflect a life that was well lived. We could say the same about the last social media post. What The Tweet Hereafter does is makes me think twice before I hit post, what about you?

I Went To My Own Digital Funeral

I Went To My Own Digital Funeral

I Went To My Own Digital Funeral

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BuzzFeed News

A few weeks ago, I went to my own funeral. Or at least a simulation of my own funeral. I was sitting in an auditorium, alone except for a trim young man in a black suit, who walked up to a lectern and began speaking. “Good evening,” he said. “We are here to honor the memory of Doree Shafrir. Doree was a beloved friend, daughter, and wife. Our thoughts go out to her loved ones on this day.”

It was more than a little jarring, sitting there listening to this guy talk about me. Doree, he said, was “committed to her work, to social justice and to literature. She showed support to women she’d never even met, and gave platforms to voices of color.” He went on like this for another minute or so, talking about how I’d passed away and “left an empty place” in the hearts of my loved ones. Next, there was a video — all my tweets, scrolling on a huge screen in front of me — and it was only then that I truly started recoiling. My legacy was going to be my tweets about Justin Bieber’s fling with Bronte Blampied, my neighbors’ love of Project Runway, my excitement about wearing a dress with pockets to a wedding.

I was at LACMA, the LA County Museum of Art, for an interactive exhibit put on by an organization called the Hereafter Institute, which was started by the 34-year-old artist Gabriel Barcia-Colombo. The pitch was vague: The Hereafter Institute, I was told, “evaluates a person’s digital afterlife using new technologies.” The “funeral” was the culmination of a half-hour personal tour through a series of exhibits meant to inspire reflection and conversation on our digital afterlives.

What would someone who doesn’t know me infer about who I was based solely on my online presence?

For centuries, people have been trying to figure out how to achieve immortality — or at least extend their lifespans. Today, billionaires like Larry Ellison, Peter Thiel, and Sergey Brin are spending part of their fortunes on research that they hope will allow them to extend their lifespans. Perhaps the most radical ideas are coming out of Dmitry Itskov’s 2045 Initiative, an organization that hopes to eventually be able to meld human heads with robot bodies. For the non-billionaires among us, digital immortality will have to do.

I’ve long been fascinated by the posthumous digital lives of others, but I’d never really thought about what would happen to my own self-created online presence after I’m dead — and more important, how it could be manipulated, even by people with the best of intentions. As someone who likes to maintain a modicum of control over her online presence (don’t we all?), this notion started to feel more than a little bit scary. What would someone who doesn’t know me infer about who I was based solely on my online presence? At least when I’m alive, my social media is a constantly updated, organically changing thing; once I’m dead, it’s all frozen in amber. Would that same online presence serve as a comfort to people who knew me, a kind of poignant memorial? Or, most terrifyingly of all, would no one care?

A “funeral” at the Hereafter Institute, an installation at LACMA.

A “funeral” at the Hereafter Institute, an installation at LACMA.

I’m not proud of the fact that when I hear about a celebrity dying, I check to see what their last tweet was. I obsessively read the Last Message Received Tumblr, which posts the last communication (usually texts) that people got from exes, or family and friends who died; the ones that are the most painful to read are the mundane ones from friends who were then killed by drunk drivers.

In 2016, the human condition is marked by existential despair in thinking about being remembered for a few lackluster, dashed-off tweets and silly photos.

These transmissions can appear cruelly unremarkable, but after death, even the most ordinary dribs and drabs of communication feel poignant to their loved ones. Like the Hereafter Institute’s project, the Last Message Received is saying: You matter. You matter, and the world you lived in matters, and the people you loved — they matter too.

Still, I can’t help but think I’ll want to keep everything away from the prying eyes of people like me when someone I’m close to dies.

Aren’t we really just expressing anxieties about our own mortality when we voraciously consume the digital afterlives of others? When I think about it in this light, I’m more forgiving of my morbid, voyeuristic habit. If there is an upside to my obsession with these inadvertent social media memorials, it’s that they have made me more aware of the permanence of my online presence, which, in the moment, can seem deceptively ephemeral. In 2016, the human condition is marked by existential despair in thinking about being remembered for a few lackluster, dashed-off tweets and silly photos. What if the last thing I ever tweet is a complaint about how much Time Warner Cable sucks? And so, whether we like it or not, life now requires no small degree of constant self-examination about our own legacies, online and off.

When I arrived at the entrance of the Hereafter Institute’s exhibit, I was greeted by a young blonde woman (an actor, I later learned) in a lab coat, who began by asking me a series of questions about my online presence, including which social networks I had accounts on and which dating apps I’d used. I was left, by that simple exercise, with the uncomfortable knowledge that my digital legacy goes far beyond a bunch of photos on Instagram. It’s a LinkedIn profile where I’ll always be working at BuzzFeed, a Clue profile where my next period is always just a few weeks away, my Discover Weekly playlist on Spotify updating until the end of time. I sat there wondering if my Apple ID would exist forever and if new episodes of Who? Weekly would keep downloading well after I was gone.

Then I stood on a platform while another Hereafter Institute guide took a 3D scan of my body — a scan I would later see animated at my “funeral” — and led me to another building at the museum, where there exhibit continued. There, I saw a record player on a stand where tweets by a man named Fernando Rafael Heria Jr. scrolled on a black screen. (I later found out he had been hit by a car and killed in 2010 while riding his bike in Miami; he was 25.) “Ever wanted to kick someone in the throat?” said one tweet, from March 20, 2010. “Fernando Rafael Heria Jr. shared a link: Brian Piccolo: Thursday Night Criterium Series,” said another from March 25 of that year.

Barcia-Colombo at LACMA

Next, I was led over to a different part of the same room, where I put on a virtual reality headset and found myself engulfed in the separate worlds of three people who had died. It was like a video game, with voiceovers by friends and family (and in one case, a reading by one of the deceased). Barcia-Colombo explained that his intention was to create a memorial to the dead that would allow people a small window into their lived experiences.

A few days after I went through the exhibit, I spoke with Barcia-Colombo by phone. “I was really interested in this sort of bizarre thing that’s happening now, where people pass away on the internet and there’s no real virtual practice put in place for what we do with this data,” he said. “I’ve had friends that have passed away, and yet people don’t really know, and they still wish them happy birthday. Or people tweet after they’ve died because they’ve set up auto-tweeting. I thought it was a really sort of interesting time in our culture, and our conversation about death is really changing.”

“At some point there’s going to be more people who’ve passed away on Facebook than there are alive people on Facebook.”

Last year, Facebook instituted a policy that allows you to designate a person to maintain your Facebook page after you die; your page lives on, but is changed to a “memorial” page. But what happens when that person dies? And so on? “At some point there’s going to be more people who’ve passed away on Facebook than there are alive people on Facebook,” Barcia-Colombo said. “What is that going to mean?”

We don’t know the answer to that question yet. But what does it mean when even the most off-the-cuff content that we produced when we were alive has the potential to become a posthumous representation of ourselves? It’s exhausting enough to maintain a digital presence while we’re alive. Now are we expected to also be mindful of how our digital selves will be perceived after death?

Today’s teenagers are enamored with pointedly ephemeral social media like Snapchat, where posts disappear quickly and (seemingly) forever, and maybe they’re onto something. Maybe the next generation is so conscious of digital legacies that they’ve decided not to create one at all. But I’m too far gone, I think, to make my social media presence disappear; I am a self-archivist by nature, and erasing everything is scarier to me than the idea that someone might piece together a contextless version of me after I die.

All of this awareness adds another complicated layer to the notion of the digital self — one that a quick perusal of my Twitter feed tells me I am definitely not ready for. We may not be sentient beings in death, but whether we like it or not, we will continue to exist long after our bodies are dead and gone.

Who inherits your iTunes library?

Who inherits your iTunes library?

Many of us will accumulate vast libraries of digital books and music over the course of our lifetimes. But when we die, our collections of words and music may expire with us.

Someone who owned 10,000 hardcover books and the same number of vinyl records could bequeath them to descendants, but legal experts say passing on iTunes and Kindle libraries would be much more complicated.

And one’s heirs stand to lose huge sums of money. “I find it hard to imagine a situation where a family would be OK with losing a collection of 10,000 books and songs,” says Evan Carroll, co-author of “Your Digital Afterlife.” “Legally dividing one account among several heirs would also be extremely difficult.”

Part of the problem is that with digital content, one doesn’t have the same rights as with print books and CDs. Customers own a license to use the digital files — but they don’t actually own them.

Apple AAPL, +0.79% and Amazon.com AMZN, +0.98% grant “nontransferable” rights to use content, so if you buy the complete works of the Beatles on iTunes, you cannot give the “White Album” to your son and “Abbey Road” to your daughter.

According to Amazon’s terms of use, “You do not acquire any ownership rights in the software or music content.” Apple limits the use of digital files to Apple devices used by the account holder.

“That account is an asset and something of value,” says Deirdre R. Wheatley-Liss, an estate-planning attorney at Fein, Such, Kahn & Shepard in Parsippany, N.J.

But can it be passed on to one’s heirs?

Most digital content exists in a legal black hole. “The law is light years away from catching up with the types of assets we have in the 21st Century,” says Wheatley-Liss. In recent years, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Indiana, Oklahoma and Idaho passed laws to allow executors and relatives access to email and social networking accounts of those who’ve died, but the regulations don’t cover digital files purchased.

Apple and Amazon did not respond to requests for comment.

There are still few legal and practical ways to inherit e-books and digital music, experts say. And at least one lawyer has a plan to capitalize on what may become be a burgeoning market. David Goldman, a lawyer in Jacksonville, says he will next month launch software, DapTrust, to help estate planners create a legal trust for their clients’ online accounts that hold music, e-books and movies. “With traditional estate planning and wills, there’s no way to give the right to someone to access this kind of information after you’re gone,” he says.

Here’s how it works: Goldman will sell his software for $150 directly to estate planners to store and manage digital accounts and passwords. And, while there are other online safe-deposit boxes like AssetLock and ExecutorSource that already do that, Goldman says his software contains instructions to create a legal trust for accounts. “Having access to digital content and having the legal right to use it are two totally different things,” he says.

The simpler alternative is to just use your loved one’s devices and accounts after they’re gone — as long as you have the right passwords.

 

Chester Jankowski, a New York-based technology consultant, says he’d look for a way to get around the licensing code written into his 15,000 digital files. “Anyone who was tech-savvy could probably find a way to transfer those files onto their computer — without ending up in Guantanamo,” he says. But experts say there should be an easier solution, and a way such content can be transferred to another’s account or divided between several people.“We need to reform and update intellectual-property law,” says Dazza Greenwood, lecturer and researcher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.

Technology pros say the need for such reform is only going to become more pressing. “A significant portion of our assets is now digital,” Carroll says. U.S. consumers spend nearly $30 on e-books and MP3 files every month, or $360 a year, according to e-commerce company Bango. Apple alone has sold 300 million iPods and 84 million iPads since their launches. Amazon doesn’t release sales figures for the Kindle Fire, but analysts estimate it has nearly a quarter of the U.S. tablet market.

How I learned to live forever

How I learned to live forever

Say goodbye to having to die.
Say goodbye to having to die.

When my grandmother passed away this year, I was devastated. She may have been in her late 80s, but her sunny personality and boundless energy made it seem like she’d would probably just live forever.

My grandma was what you’d call a “silver surfer.” From the moment she inherited her daughter’s old laptop, she embraced the internet like a digital native. It wasn’t long before we were helping her set up a Facebook profile which she used to happily spend hours sharing cute animals videos and writing us sweet messages ALWAYS WRITTEN ENTIRELY IN CAPS. I gave up explaining to her that this amounted to constant shouting. She liked it that way.

A few months after she’d passed away, I was a bit shocked to see her picture pop up in my notifications, reminding me that it was her birthday. I hadn’t forgotten, but it saddened me to imagine other family members whose grief was still very raw receiving similar messages. I had thought—perhaps naively—that since Facebook knew enough about my life and habits to bombard me with targeted advertisements it would also know my grandmother was no longer with us. But the bots didn’t have a clue.

I looked up the procedure to report a death to Facebook, and requested that her account be “memorialized.” This means that nobody can log in to the account again, but her posts remain visible to the people they were originally shared with, and friends and family can continue to share memories on her timeline. I wanted to digitally preserve the memory of my grandmother.

After making my request I almost immediately received a response from someone in Facebook’s community operations team asking me to send them her death certificate. Their response struck me as strange and insensitive—like I was making it up for some reason. Since I didn’t have that document (my grandmother lived in Brazil and I didn’t handle the funeral arrangements), I argued that they should be able to verify her passing through the evidence available on their own platform. Facebook eventually agreed, but I can’t say it was a particularly pleasant process.

Technology is currently challenging our conceptualization of what it means to live—and die.“The tech industry is not really up on death,” says Stacey Pitsillides, a design lecturer at the University of Greenwich who is a PhD candidate in the field of data contextualization in digital death. Since starting her research several years ago, Pitsillides says she’s witnessed a remarkable shift: People are becoming increasingly eager to immortalize personal experiences online, just as I had felt after my grandmother’s passing.

This observation prompted her to set up Love After Death, a panel showcased at FutureFest in London to help people explore how technology is becoming integrated into new forms of creative expressions around death and dying. I met Pitsillides at FutureFest, a festival of ideas sponsored by innovation charity NESTA, to discuss the concept of digital legacies.

Technology is currently challenging our conceptualization of what it means to live—and die. Pitsillides believes that technology and design will play an increasingly important role in the process of morning, which she calls “creative bereavement.” “By creating a bespoke legacy agreement, it merges the concept of a design agency with funeral director,” she said.

To illustrate this, Pitsillides started by taking me through a questionnaire that asked me things ranging from the practical (which loved ones should be informed of my death, and would I like to setup a database of music, art, or poetry to be used at my funeral?) to the weird and outlandish (would my friends like to do an online vigil through live webcasting where I could be present via hologram, and how about having a memorial implant or tattoo?)

But wait—holograms? Memorial implants? Was this for real?

In the future, yes.

Death by Design

“You could have a surface-level or below-skin digital tattoo that could be matched to that of a loved one,” Pitsillides explained. Using simple technologies, you could add content to these digital mementos throughout your life and then have them activated after your death. This activation could either be triggered by the executor of your will—over 19 US states have already put forward laws to recognize the deceased’s digital legacy as part of their estate—or we could evolve AI systems to recognize cues when this should happen. At that point, certain content could become available to the people you’d predetermined, depending on the stipulations you left in your digital will.

It’s basically the futuristic, high-tech version of wearing half of your lover’s heart-shaped locket. These tattoos and implants could even be programmed to trigger only in the context of certain events. For example, when walking past the special spot where a now-passed husband proposed to his wife, his widow’s digital tattoo could change color or bloom into the pattern of her favorite flower, and “their” song could start playing on her phone. Or a father could still “be there” to deliver the speech at his daughter’s wedding via hologram, or greet the arrival of his first grandchild with a pre-recorded message.

An increasingly popular service is using 3D printing to create personalized mementos for your friends and family using human ashes.While these memorialization usages are still conceptual, the technology itself is already fairly mature. For example, we already have technology that allows for smart epidermal electronics to collect and record information about users, reacting to this data in a wide variety of programmable ways: Think of IoT devices like Dexcom that continuously monitor glucose levels for diabetes patients, allowing them to track their blood sugar via apps linked to wearables like the Apple Watch. Instead of being focused on what our minds and bodies are doing in the present moment, these tactile technologies could help us build and enhance connections with people both during life and after death.

As more people embrace the idea that death in the digital age is not just about looking back at the past, they will begin to realize that it’s just as much about the future. We’re already seeing people grapple with this concept in terms of what happens to our bodies after we die. Nowadays your ashes can be turned into building blocks for a coral reef or a beautiful fireworks display, but there’s a whole other after-world emerging courtesy of technology. For example, an increasingly popular service is using 3D printing to create personalized mementos for your friends and family using human ashes.

The Talking Dead

Since such a large percentage of our lives and interactions are now conducted online, we are constantly forced to reassess our meaning of self and identity. Is our online identity the most accurate reflection of our true selves? And, if so, can it “live” independently from our physical bodies?

The answer is potentially yes. The connections we build and share can—now quite literally—take on a life of their own. For example, websites like LifeNaut offer services that allow you to create a “mind file” that supposedly enables future scenarios around reanimation through “downloading” your memories to a robot or clone vessel of some sort. We might not yet be at the stage where robotics and AI enable the Black Mirror scenario where life-like replicants of loved ones can be created from their social media profiles. But it’s no exaggeration to say that, for better or for worse, our digital footprint already outlives our biological self.

“We are moving toward a society where the dead are not banished but remain present in our lives as sources of guidance, role models, and as an embodiment of particular values and life lessons,” Pitsillides said.

But is that what we really want? The ability to live forever through technology raises difficult questions such as whether it is our memories that make us who we are, whether our loved ones would accept this “new” version of us, and who should control consent to make these kinds of decisions after death. This kind of permanence may be appealing for some, but for others the possibility of a digital presence continuously and independently evolving is quite disturbing.

Most of us avoid thinking about our own mortality until it stares us in the face. As someone who spends most of my time online, I’m unsettled by this idea of not being in control of my online persona once I die—even if I wouldn’t be in a position to care, at that point. But having experienced the enduring joy that my grandmother’s Facebook memories have brought to our family, it makes me think that my digital legacy is something worth preserving. And now I have the first steps to know how to do just that.

You can follow Alice on Twitter at @AliceBonasio. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.