by Webnme2 on Sep 6th 2010
What happens to your online identity, online property, online friends, and online accounts when you die?
Disclaimer: These articles are not intended as legal advice. For legal advice you may wish to consult your planning and estates attorney. The information here may be helpful to you in asking questions and making the right plan for your assets.
This is the second of a five part series of articles on digital death and your internet afterlife.
What’s the Fuss?
What Happens to Your Online Identity and Assets after Your Death?
That is a sobering question that I’m sure most of us have not asked and probably don’t want to address. As uncomfortable as it may be, this is a real issue and we need to think about all of the stuff we have online and what happens to it after we die. This is particularly important as we move to cloud computing where large amounts of our data are stored online in document, photo, video and social interaction repositories.
What happens to your facebook information, your online photo gallery with priceless digital family pictures, your email stored online, your draft novel tucked away in a Google document, accounts that support online property, online game files, domain names that you may own and related named accounts with places like Twitter, and so much more?
What happens to potentially embarrassing information – people do have online relationships, alias identities, and sometimes secret lives that would surprise or shock the people that only knew them face-to-face. Do family, friends and the public need to know that the mild-mannered, creationist minister, had a secret life in a game of evolution where his species committed acts of xenocide to dominate a virtual galaxy with relentless attacks and even the brutal destruction of planets of foes? . . . or that a police officer spent his time building a mob organization in an online game? . . . or that grandma got bored and engaged in sex chats?
If you do nothing, what happens under the terms of service for the places where you conducted your online activities? Should this be addressed by using online death services and what do they offer? Should you address this in your will? We will talk about that in Parts 3 and 4 of this series.
The short answer is that if you do nothing, some of what you had online will disappear when your accounts are no longer meeting terms of service requirements or when paid services are no longer paid. Some stuff may live on forever. Some stuff may end up in the hands of a relative or friend. Valuable assets may be lost to your heirs including domain names that expire – some of which may be worth substantial sums. Worse, if you don’t plan, your more intimate conversations only intended for friends may well become available to family or others.
Example: A lady and her best friend kept each other up-to-date on their daily lives with multiple emails every day over many years. They both wrote about their spouses and families in detail, sometimes in very critical ways. This lady made a chronicle of all of her husband and children’s shortcomings complete with choice epithets and her friend would write back encouraging more comments and offering her own choice criticism.
After the lady passed on one of the children gained access to the lady’s email accounts and immediately saw an email from the deceased’s best friend continuing a conversation about the very same child’s many faults. Now that was pretty embarrassing and it got worse as the child and the family began to read through the hundreds of emails learning that the person they had thought of as a loving spouse and mother was in fact quite a different person who apparently thoroughly despised all of them.
Needless to say this did not promote a good memory of the deceased, caused great harm to the family, and left each person with many wounds from the terrible accusations and descriptions of their personal lives, which was made all the worse because it had been shared with a stranger to all of them.
How could this have been avoided?
Why Is Planning More Important Now?
In the early days of personal computers, these questions did not need to be asked. Almost all data was stored on the individual’s local hard drive and that was it. After death the hard drive could be accessed or destroyed as needed and that ended the matter. Similarly, an individual could password protect or even encrypt his or her hard drive and protect data from anyone else getting to it. But that is no longer an adequate way to view things. Information has been and is moving to the internet cloud.
At the same time the old desktop computer is getting to be a harder nut to crack. Data on local machines is increasingly encrypted, often with bio-metrics and/or tokens making access difficult. Individuals may have dozens or even hundreds of places, services, or websites where they have registered with a password, identity tokens (think PayPal random number generating keys), or even a smart card of some sort. These passwords and access credentials may tie into stock management, receivable accounts, payments that are automatically renewed, auctions, sales, and so much more.
Most wills are very good at addressing traditional assets like bank accounts, real property, and personal property. But what about online property that nobody knows about? What about personal information and records that may be destroyed when the account is no longer paid or remains unused for longer than allowed by the service or website’s terms of service?
When You Are Gone, Who Knows What You Had?
An immediate problem after a death is reconstructing what the person had on the Internet and what to do about it. But, who knows all of your Internet secrets? Most people treat their online experience as a very private one and rarely take the time to make a record of every site for which they have an account, lists of places that information is stored, lists of alias identities and where they are used, or even who their friends are.
Who Were Your Friends?
A decade ago, you could pretty much count on an obituary in a local newspaper and maybe in a hometown newspaper reaching most people that a person knew in life. Today that is hardly the case. Most people that use the Internet have developed friendships via email, chat, Twitter, Buzz, forums, games and other online activities. How do you get the word out to all of these contacts that a person has passed on?
Unless you want chaos, some data to be lost and the possible release of embarrassing information you need a plan. Part 2 of this series will address identifying what to address and Parts 3 & 4 will discuss some of your options.