We all know that having a Will to protect our life’s assets is crucial, but what about our virtual life? Is our online presence classed as an asset? It most definitely can be!
Known as “digital assets”, what you store online can take many forms, and often have no expiry date. So, what happens to your digital property when you die?
There actually is a thing called “digital estate planning”. Just like a Will, a digital estate plan can help your family to find, access, value, and appropriately distribute or take care of your virtual assets after your death. In many cases, it can form part of your Will.
What are digital assets?
Digital assets can include any data, internet accounts or rights you may have in the digital world. Data may be stored on your computer hard drive, on removable media, or more often it is stored remotely “in the cloud” so you can access it online.
Digital assets can include personal and business data, intellectual property rights, or online accounts, and be held in:
- Cloud storage facilities,
- Online accounting services,
- Email accounts,
- Social networks,
- Web domains and hosted websites,
- Shopping and business accounts.
Intellectual property rights to photos, music, movies, literary works, websites, computer code, or any creative works you have produced and stored, can also be classed as digital assets.
Understandably, your loved ones may not be aware of all of your virtual assets. Even if they know of their existence, digital property is often password-protected, and many companies have privacy regulations restricting them from allowing access to accounts to anyone but the owner without a legal battle.
Why do I need a plan for my digital assets?
Creating a digital estate plan (or including it in your Will) can provide numerous benefits.
- Photos, videos, literary works, songs, and other memorabilia that may be of value to your loved ones can be accessed and distributed as per your wishes, including any future royalties associated with your creations
- If you are the owner of a domain and website, recording your access codes will ensure the domain name does not expire, and the website can be updated after your death
- Social networking sites and email accounts can be accessed and closed as per each provider’s terms. Your entire circle of friends can also be easily contacted by your family to notify your passing
- If you own an online business, providing access details to a trusted person will ensure it continues to operate until your full Will is executed
- If your family is aware of your virtual assets, but cannot access them, a digital estate plan can eliminate the need for excessive probate and potential litigation.
How do I start?
If this has made you realise how valuable your virtual life is, sit down and make a list of your digital assets, including where they’re held and how they can be accessed. It’s important to store usernames and passwords in separate places to minimise the risk of theft.
Then choose someone you trust with this confidential information, and who is up to the task of following your instructions.
Don’t leave it another moment…
The Digital Beyond www.thedigitalbeyond.com
This article contains information that is general in nature. It does not take into account the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular person. You need to consider your financial situation and needs before making any decisions based on this information.
User Not Found Explores Our Digital Identity After Death
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Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.
What happens to our online presence after we die?
Joining the extensive list of sight-specific theatre offerings in London is Dante or Die’s User Not Found, a 90-minute immersive show that explores the question of digital identity after one dies. Originally a play that debuted as part of Traverse Theatre’s 2018 Edinburgh Fringe programme, the one-man project utilises headphones and a smart phone to place the audience within the emotionally fragile mind of a lover who has been given the responsibility of sorting out his dead boyfriend’s online presence.
Terry O’Donovan does his best to carry the show — that takes place within the cosy confines of The CoffeeWorks Project — by revealing the disparate state of his relationship with his (as it turns out) ex-lover, and all the questions one might have in finding out about their more recent affairs. O’Donovan scrolls through his lover’s social pages, and we as an audience join along in the peep show via the smart phones and headphones placed on the tables.
The idea is brilliant, as surely we would all be curious as to what might happen to our Instagram and Facebook accounts once we are no longer able to carry out our own postings. Inspired by a research project at the University of Reading, along with a Guardian article that highlights a wife’s predicament of how she should handle her husband’s digital legacy after his sudden death, the show’s creators Daphna Attias and O’Donovan as well as creative technologists Luke and Abhinav from Marmelo cleverly bring an immersive element to the question — who would you put in control of your digital presence once you are dead?
Yet something somehow feels like it’s missing. Maybe an even more detailed approach via the headphones and smartphone would have brought us closer to O’Donovan’s heavy and confused heart. Either way, it’s a unique experience that is certainly worth checking out over coffee and treats, particularly if you’re interested in checking out Battersea’s newly revamped offering of trendy restaurants on the riverside.
User Not Found, The CoffeeWorks Project, Unit 20 Circus Road West, Battersea, SW11 8EZ, £20+. Until 2 June
Death and taxes… and Facebook?
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Siena will be hosting a conference October 27 focused on “digital legacy” — what happens to your online presence after you die. The Digital Legacy Conference is touted as the first of its kind in the United States: “the only conference that explores death, dying, bereavement and the internet”
Here are some of the scheduled speakers:
• Shelby Lindblad product designer, and Kim Malfacini, associate manager, Facebook: “Memorialization and Legacy Contacts on Facebook”
• Carla Sofka, Ph.D., MSW, professor of social work, Siena College: “Digital Legacy Social Media and Grief in Today’s World”
• James Norris, founder of the Digital Legacy Association and DeadSocial: “Digital Asset Planning Included as a Holistic Approach to an Advance Healthcare Directive in the U.K”
• Stephen Hans, director of Hans Funeral Home in Albany: “The Impact of Online Technology and Social Media on the Funeral Industry”
• Lee Poskanzer, CEO of Directive Communication Systems: “Digital Assets Directives: The Law and the Online Behavior”
• Stacy Macleod, journalist: “Untangling Digital Legacy: Common Threads and Conversations”
• Antonio Estevan Huerta, musician: live performance of Dr. Mark Taubert’s “A thank you letter to David Bowie from a palliative care doctor”
Jennifer Muldowney, author of “Say Farewell Your Way” and spokesperson on end-of-life planning, will offer the introduction and concluding remarks for the conference.
The conference is Saturday, October 27 from 11 am to 4 pm on Siena’s campus in Loudonville. It’s free to attend, but registrations is required.
On one hand this whole topic feels like an opportunity for whole new industries to sell us stuff or make money off us even after we’re dead. On the other — so much of our interaction with other people now occurs online or digitally that it’s probably not a bad idea to be thinking about what happens to all that after we’re gone.
Of course, in the future InstaFaceTube or whatever the all-enveloping social media platform is of the day will probably just mine all of our posts for content forever. Look, here’s a selfie from the gates of heaven…
BSides Manchester What happens to the numerous user logins you’ve accumulated after you die or become too infirm to manipulate a keyboard?
Some people have a plan, the digital equivalent of living will, or have chosen “family” option in a password management package such as LastPass or have entrusted a book of passwords to a family member.
But the consequences of doing nothing are not as neutral as some might expect and were spelled out during an informative presentation by Chris Boyd of Malwarebyes at BSides in Manchester on Thursday. The presentation, cheerily titled “The digital entropy of death”, covered what could happen to your carefully curated online presence after you log off.
Miscreants are already targeting obviously abandoned profiles. Boyd explained that in some cases it’s easier for fraudsters to gain hold of these accounts than the account-holders’ relatives, because crooks know the systems better and controls – although present – are often deeply embedded on the sites such as Facebook, Twitter et al.
“Facebook users have reported receiving friend requests from accounts associated with dead friends and family members,” The Independent reports. “Such requests appear to be the result of cloning or hacking scams that see criminals try [to] add people on the site, and then use that friendship as a way of stealing money from them or running other cons.”
Social media accounts are, of course, just the tip of the iceberg. Most people these days run 100+ accounts, as figures from password management software apps show. These figures are only increasing over time. Some sites are managing the inevitability of their users shuffling off this mortal coil with features designed to deactivate accounts after months of inactivity or other features, Boyd explained in a recent blog post:
Many sites now offer a way for relatives and executors to memorialise, or just delete, an account. In other circumstances, services would rather you ‘self-manage’ and plan ahead for your own demise (cheerful!) by setting a ticking timer. If the account is inactive for the specified length of time, then into the great digital ether it goes.
While a lot of services don’t openly advertise what to do in the event of a death on their website, they will give advice should you contact them, whether social network, email service, or web host. When there’s no option available, though, people will forge their own path and take care of their so-called ‘digital estate planning’ themselves.
Users would be ill-advised to leave everything to their next of kin. “Do some pre-handover diligence, and take some time to ensure everything is locked down tight,” Boyd explained. “If there’s anything hugely important you need them to know, tell them in advance.”
People may have bought digital purchases tied to certain platforms. Games on Steam, or music on iTunes or Spotify.
“Legally, when you go, so do your files (in as much as anything you can’t download and keep locally is gone forever),” Boyd explained. “That’s because you’re buying into a licence to use a thing, as opposed to buying the thing itself.”
Here’s a video of his presentation, if you want to see more…
There’s nothing stopping someone from passing on a login to a family member so they can continue to make use of all the purchased content, at least for now. Boyd predicted that at some point, all of our digital accounts tied to financial purchases will have some sort of average human lifespan timer attached to them.
Millennials mark the first generation not to know life before an always-on, everywhere internet, which will become the norm from now on. “Younger generations absolutely will demand reforms to the way we think about digital content, ownership, and inheritance,” Boyd concluded. ®
As well as the inevitable rise and fall of social media site (e.g. MySpace), and web 2.0 services there is also the issue of link rot, the phenomenon of more and more URLs not working over time. This issue is covered by Boyd in another recent blog post here.
Facebook Addresses The Challenges Of Dealing With Accounts Of The Deceased
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When someone passes away, there are many logistics to deal with that make the mourning process even more complicated than it already is. One of the more recent complications relates to our online presence and social media accounts: What should happen to those things when we die?
This is the issue Facebook is addressing today in a personal blog post about how it deals with someone’s account after they die, and the challenges that can arise in trying to take the “right” measures. Monika Bickert, Facebook’s Director of Global Policy Management, wrote the post as part of “Hard Questions,” a conversation board of sorts that the company launched this past June to “talk more openly about some complex subjects.” Today’s memorialization post is the third in the ongoing series — the first was a post on countering terrorism, and the second was a timely discussion about how Facebook handles hate speech.
Bickert writes her personal experience: In the post “What should happen to people’s online identity when they die?,” she recounts the days following the death of her husband.
“For months after Phil died, I’d cry when I’d receive an Amazon email prompting him to order his regular shipment of secondhand detective novels, or a message from his pharmacy cheerfully reminding him that his chemotherapy was ready for pickup,” Bickert writes. “Even now, I pause whenever I log into Facebook and see a post of mine resurfaced from years ago. I worry it will be one of the many I shared with friends over the course of Phil’s battle with cancer, detailing his progress and hinting at our naïve faith that he would continue to beat the odds.”
Bickert notes the challenging duality to digital assets in death: On the one hand, having someone’s Instagram, Facebook, and other social media accounts means we’ll have access to far more pictures and memories than we would have otherwise. But resurfacing those photos and posts can also make mourning more painful.
When someone passes away, there are currently two options for how to handle their Facebook account. If you can provide documentation that you are a family member — with a birth certificate, estate letter, or other verifiable means — as well as an obituary or memorial card, you can ask that the account be removed completely. If you prefer the account be memorialized, you can submit a memorialization request. A memorialized account remains on Facebook with all of the content posted before the person’s passing visible. However, the word “remembering” is included by the person’s name to indicate that they are no longer living. Memorialized profiles don’t appear in what Facebook deems “public spaces” — you will never see a birthday reminder or friend suggestion for the deceased.
In all cases, Bickert explains in the post, Facebook attempts to make decisions that respect what the deceased would have wanted for their account. But there’s an element that’s somewhat similar to the challenges of traditional funeral rites: “Sometimes, however, we simply don’t know what the person would have wanted,” she writes. “If a bereaved spouse asks us to add her as a friend to her late husband’s profile so she can see his photos and posts, how do we know if that’s what her husband would have wanted? Is there a reason they were not previously Facebook friends? Does it mean something if she had sent him a friend request when he was alive and he had rejected it? What if the wife had simply never been on Facebook until after her husband’s death?”
The list of complications goes on and on, including questions around what to do if one family member wants an account memorialized, while another wishes it be taken down. There’s also the question of what to do with someone’s private messages (even if a parent requests these, The Electronic Communications Privacy Act and Stored Communications Act, prevents Facebook from sharing them).
The latter is an exception: In many cases, there aren’t laws around digital assets of the deceased. “Despite our efforts to respect the wishes of those who pass away and those who survive them, we still encounter difficult situations where we end up disappointing people,” Bickert writes. All of this is to say that there is no “right” way to deal with the accounts of those who have passed away, and until there are laws, these conversations continue to evolve.
The best option is to approach your Facebook account as you would approach the creation of a will. The social media platform’s version of legacy estate handling is referred to as a legacy contact. Assigning a trusted friend or family member as your legacy contact will give them some management controls over your profile whenever you pass away. That person still has some restrictions: They can’t remove friends, read messages, delete past posts and photos, and log into the account.
“What’s important to me is that people know they have options and that if they use a legacy contact, then they can make choices now that will make things easier for those they leave behind if they pass away,” Bickert told Refinery29.
As inconsequential as it might sound now, your social media accounts will be one of the most visible and connected elements you leave behind after passing away. If you’re going to take the time to do formal estate planning, you might as well take a few minutes to consider your social profiles, too.