Confronting mortality is a deeply personal quest that does not usually sit high on one’s to-do list. Death is scary so we avoid thinking about it. At some point, though, pragmatism usually wins. Those who can afford to call their lawyers and those who cannot pull out a notebook. It is decided: who inherits the house, which lucky friend gets the music collection, how to settle outstanding bills.
As the divide between real and online identity dissolves, a necessary but morbid conversation is gaining traction on the internet. What happens to your email account when you die? What about your Facebook profile or your photo albums on Flickr? Who will get the few hundred rands in your PayPal account? How will your Twitter followers know you have passed on? In short, do you have a digital death plan?
Popular Canadian blogger Derek Miller did. The day after he died on May 3 last year, the 41-year-old delivered a poignant message from beyond the grave that went viral and had readers, including me, reaching for a Kleenex.
“Here it is,” he wrote. “I am dead and this is my last post to my blog. In advance, I asked that once my body finally shut down from the punishments of my cancer, then my family and friends publish this prepared message I wrote — the first part of the process of turning this from an active website into an archive.”
Miller, who started blogging in 1997, was proud of the archive he had built over a decade and gave considerable thought to managing his digital legacy. He would have been pleased to know that his final post has been “liked” more than 31 000 times on Facebook and has received more than 1 260 comments to date.
Miller was a rarity. Most people have not planned ahead for their imminent digital death. A survey last year commissioned by cloud computing company RackSpace estimated that Britons could have at least £2.3-billion worth of personal information such as videos, books and photos stored in the cloud. But only 11% of respondents surveyed had left or planned to leave passwords to their “digital treasures” in their will — not really smart of the remaining 89%.
“It is a good idea to give a trusted person your primary access credentials and including them as part of a will is a good way to do it,” said Paul Jacobson, a South African digital media lawyer and director of web.tech.law. He suggests using a password management service such as LastPass or 1Password to manage your passwords for various accounts. “Aside from the security benefits, these services also offer a way for your family members to access your cloud services when you are gone.”
I share a Google Docs file with my husband in which we keep an updated list of our important accounts — email, social media, online banking. A spouse or partner is the most obvious choice to be your “digital executor”, but if yours has temperamental, scheming, Blair Waldorf or Brooke Forrester tendencies, do not even think about it.
Instead, consider using a “digital estate planning” service such as AfterSteps, Legacy Locker or SecureSafe. They all work in a similar way: you upload your documents, photos and login details, specify what you would like to happen to those accounts posthumously and then appoint beneficiaries who will receive this data by email after you die and, hopefully, carry out your wishes.
Of course, these services need to know of your death before this can happen. Two of your beneficiaries must report it to them with a copy of your death certificate and their identity documents. Premium pricing plans offer unlimited data storage and password listings and cost between $4 and $12 a month. It is like Dropbox for death for a few dollars.
You can go an eerie step further and use GreatGoodbye or Dead Man’s Switch to send emails to friends and family after your death. The concept is simple: sign up, write your heartfelt messages, select recipients and then log in periodically to verify that you are alive. If you do not do so after three email reminders, Dead Man’s Switch will assume the worst has happened and release your emails. If you are travelling or without web access for a while, it is possible to postpone the verification process so that the service does not contact you during that period.
In recent years, the major social networking sites have put death policies in place to address concerns from users (and parents of teenage users) about what happens to their profiles after they pass on. If they leave behind login details, it is easy for family members to fulfil their wishes, but without this it can be a mission.
Take the case of Anthony “TJ” Cannata. Before he committed suicide last December, the 20-year-old posted a new Facebook profile picture — of himself holding a gun to his mouth. His friends and family emailed Facebook to take down the traumatic photo immediately, but it was removed only a month later after persistence from Cannata’s family and growing media attention.
Facebook requires that a family member provide a copy of the death certificate and proof that he or she is a legally recognised representative of the deceased. According to figures floating around the web, anywhere between two and five million Facebook profiles belong to dead users. But the social network has yet to come up with an automated way to identify them.
For now, it relies on memorial profiles to keep the site from turning into a digital graveyard. To memorialise a profile, a friend or family member of a dead user must fill out a request form and provide Facebook with a copy of the deceased’s death certificate or obituary. Once a profile is memoralised, it is converted into a tribute page where only existing friends can view it and post messages of condolence. It will not appear in non-friends’ search results or under “people you may know”. But be prepared to wait — it could take two weeks or longer for a removal or memorial request to be honoured.
If I Die
Social networks have also become the go-to gathering place for users to grieve or champion a cause, such as “Free photographer Anton Hammerl”. The Facebook campaign was set up by family friends Bronwyn Friedlander and Anso Thom on April 12 last year, a week after the award-winning photographer was captured by Gaddafi loyalists in Libya.
Curiosity got the better of me so I recently installed Facebook’s If I Die app. A short video urged me to write or record my final words to be published to my Facebook profile. I was asked to choose three Facebook friends as “trustees” who will be responsible for notifying Facebook of my death, thereby giving the network the go-ahead to post my last words. Mine is: “Testing, testing. How can I tell if it works?”
Twitter will not hand over a deceased user’s password under any circumstances because of privacy rules. To close a Twitter account, a verified family member or executor must submit paperwork including his or her identity document, the deceased’s death certificate and a signed statement requesting that the account be deactivated. Twitter can provide a copy of the deceased’s public tweets on request.
Google offers everything from email to blogging and social networking but, except for Gmail, it has no clear death policy in place. Google warns that gaining access to a dead user’s email account is a lengthy process even for a verified family member or legal representative.
You will need to provide a copy of your identity document, the deceased’s death certificate and the header and entire contents of any email you received from the deceased’s account to prove you knew them or were in contact with them. That is not all: as with Yahoo, you will need to submit a court order to access the account.
South Africa has no existing legislation that provides clarity on digital death, but lawmakers in the United States are working on theirs. According to tech authority mashable.com, only five states — Oklahoma, Idaho, Rhode Island, Indiana and Connecticut — have laws governing digital property management after death, but they need to be updated to cover social media, electronic payments and online banking. The uniform law commission is also considering legislation for fiduciary access (trusting another party with powers) to digital property and assets.
These may not be worth much, but as we increasingly share and store our lives online they are accruing enormous sentimental value. I, for one, would choose my blog over my jewellery box any day, but there is more to it than that. You see, I am one of them: the “web kids” — as Polish writer Piotr Czerski calls us — who “grew up with the internet and on the internet … the internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment. We do not use the internet, we live on the internet and along it.”
Preparing for a digital afterlife is not just practical, it is necessary. I do not know when or how I am going to die, but I know I do not want my last status update to be: “Eating muesli. So yum.” Do you?
Things to do before D-day
- Clean up your digital existence. Make a list of all your online accounts and then deactivate those you no longer use.
- Draw up a digital will — a list of your accounts, user names and passwords and instructions for what to do with them. Stipulate what data you want deleted and what you would like to keep, and do not forget to update it regularly.
- Appoint a digital executor who will be responsible for managing your digital assets. This should be someone who is trustworthy and tech-savvy.
- Write your official “last words”: a final blog post, an email to friends or a tweet to let your followers know you have passed on.
- Use services such as Dropbox or LegacyLocker to store your important info, but also back them up on an external hard drive. This way, they will outlive any changes to cloud storage technology.
- There are some emails and photos no one else should see, not even your digital executor. Get rid of them and save yourself the afterlife embarrassment.