Three important reasons to plan and organize your digital afterlife

Emily Baxter from www.awayforabit.com offers her views on why it’s important to plan a digital estate as part of a featured post on PassingBye. Read the full feature on PassingBye…

We spend a lot of time online. If recent reports are to be believed, Australians spend close to one day a week online while the Brits are estimated to spend one day every fortnight on the same activity. In the US, it is thought that the average user spends closer to two days per week either on mobile or digital media.

Which ever way you look at it, that’s a lot of time spent online which is spent communicating with others on social, commenting online, banking, shopping…. Then there’s the plethora of accounts and communities that a user signs up for. For instance, people on average have at least two email accounts and depending on the research you read, about twenty five apps that they have downloaded onto their phones. That is a significant number of companies and communities that individuals are engaging with.

Given the general trends of more time spent in the digital universe, it’s worth thinking about the footprint you will leave behind when the time comes. Here are three important reasons to consider planning and organising your digital afterlife.

Ownership of digital assets are not automatically transferable to next of kin

Who actually owns digital assets is a key yet unclear issue in today’s estate and legacy planning as a recent news story with Apple highlighted. There was a hoax story a while ago in which Bruce Willis was suing Apple because he wouldn’t be able to pass his extensive iTunes collection on to his children when he died. The story was bogus but as Paul Gordon, Associate for Finlaysons, a national law firm in Australia points out, the issue is real.

“Often when you ‘buy’ music online what you are actually acquiring is a licence to listen to it, rather than buying the song itself,” Gordon points out. “That licence may come with restrictions and may not be passed onto your next of kin when you die (i.e. a ‘personal’ contract). These issues aren’t going to go away and I’m sure will come before the courts in the coming years.”

Digital providers will not just hand over access to personal data or information of the deceased unless there’s a legal requirement to do so as their position is to defend the privacy of the account holder, in death as in life.

Damin Murdock, Principal Lawyer of the MurdockCheng Legal Practice based in Sydney suggests that when writing up a will, individuals remove any ambiguity about how they want their digital information dealt with upon their death.

It’s also recommended that you identify a system for storing sensitive information confidentially that can be passed on to next of kin. There are many options for doing this, involving legal representation, an online service or both.

Digital memories don’t last forever

It’s important to plan to capture memories and conversations as part of digital legacy and estate planning. Our new digital identities mostly exist in the hands of third parties and for many these days, memories reside in email and social media. Our mementos of events are digital photographs, or a casual comment posted online. These seem fleeting in the moment but can quickly gain significance as life changes occur. While we assume their digital nature makes them always accessible, they may not end up being everlasting.

Recently I wrote about how I’ve changed email accounts from Caramail to Hotmail to Yahoo to Gmail for social use – in the last fifteen years. Unfortunately, when trying to look back at past conversations, some of these accounts are now lost or no longer accessible which means that a large swath of my history is lost, not only to myself but to anyone who I might have passed a curated version to.

Today Facebook and Gmail might seem immortal, but there’s every reason to question whether they’ll still be around in a decade. Or whether they’ll make it easy to uncover these past memories. Their purpose may be entirely different.

The speed in which technology platforms change means that it’s important to have a way of archiving conversations as they happen. While I’m not suggesting that every single personal email conversation must be stored, this recent experience has highlighted the value of a system to continually capture personal messages and notes.

Digital gives you the opportunity to shape your legacy

The explosion of digital services means that there’s a wealth of opportunity for every person to shape their legacy and the way that they would like to be remembered. For instance, services offering the ability to leave personal messages for next of kin to communicate last wishes or words of comfort, can provide tremendous support. It’s a reminder that they were loved.

At the same time, people often have an insatiable desire to find out more about loved ones who have died, even if they believe they know them well in the first place. It’s common to hear stories of mourners piecing together strands of a life story in the same way they would a jigsaw puzzle by looking through old photos or having conversations with friends or family of the person who has died.

A digital afterlife plan which includes memories and mementos, photos or correspondence can help next of kin, family and close friends to remember the good times and provide support in what will likely be a tough, emotional time.

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This feature was originally posted on PassingBye.

A nation pays attention when a soldier dies

Planning & managing digital death; photo credit Thomas Edmondston-Low

Photo credit: Thomas Edmondston-Low

When news of my brother’s death was broken to my family in late October 2012, I was startled by the warmth and outpouring of sympathy across the UK that my parents and I received, as well as by the respects paid to my brother and the Lance Corporal who died alongside him. Handwritten notes by the thousands came to us through our letterbox extending condolences to our family. We received flowers from strangers.

Then there was the show of solidarity that prompted us to break down as we considered the large numbers of people who travelled from across the UK to honour two men they did not know and had never met.

I’d seen images on TV showing the crowds who turned up to pay their respects to dead British soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq as they were repatriated. These pictures do not do justice to the scale of public attendance.

As we were driven to join the throngs of people gathered at Carterton where we would eventually meet DB — as he was known to many — and his colleague, men and women lined up outside their houses on the road leading to the town centre where the main crowd was congregated.

I remember one senior gentleman in particular supporting himself with two sticks, one in each hand, standing on a verge by the side of the road. He was dressed in his military regalia with an earth green beret and stood motionless with his head bowed as he noticed our car approaching from a distance till long after we passed him.

We received a similar reception as we arrived at DB’s funeral. Travelling through the ordinarily pedestrianised precinct in the centre of a Cathedral town, people stood aside, bowed their heads or saluted DB in his coffin. A friend and soldier colleague of DB who attended the service came to find me afterwards telling me that a veteran had stopped her in the street, giving her fifty pounds and asking her to give it to the family or a cause nominated for donations. It was a gift given anonymously and without requiring thanks. It was truly humbling.

As for many other families who know someone who has served or is serving in a military campaign, there’s an undercurrent of anxiety that builds as the date of deployment grows closer.

This unease made me increasingly sensitive to the politics and events around what was happening in Afghanistan, particularly throughout 2012.

The escalation of green on blue attacks that accounted for less than 1% of coalition deaths in 2008 grew in intensity to 15% by 2012, more than twice the percentage compared to the year before. Public support in the UK for British forces involvement that started faltering approximately five weeks into the conflict was reported as collapsing. DB and others I spoke to, at least on the face of it, seemed unperturbed by the insider danger or of serving in an unpopular war. They had a job to do.

As news and analysis about the fatalities and the correlated public response to British presence in Afghanistan was reported, I equated lack of support for the war with lack of support for our troops. I could not have been more wrong.

Recently I learned that the repatriation of soldiers killed overseas only became common practice in the UK from 1982. The marking of their return at Wootton Bassett was a modern tradition started in 2007 when local community members came to pay their respects by the road as repatriated soldiers in their hearses were diverted through their village due to a temporary change in route.

This simple gesture tapped into wider public sentiment and attendance grew, first organically then exponentially as the custom hit the spotlight both nationally and internationally. From September 2012, this custom moved to Carterton.

The establishment of the public repatriation has of course had growing pains and attracted its share of political cynicism. Some have argued that the custom has allowed the military to re-engage with the public after the negative response to the British role in Iraq and increase support for British presence in Afghanistan. Others have suggested that the military has allowed emotion and sentimentality to enter the public debate around the nation’s role in conflict; that the funeral cortege with its display of the Union Jack and the laying of flowers on hearses as they pause then pass, encourages voyeurism.

Despite these background and foreground discussions, people for the most part have attended repatriations in Wootton Bassett and Carterton or sent messages in absentia primarily to honour and pay respects to those who have died.

The centenary marking the start of World War I and the seventieth anniversary of the D Day Landings commemorating those who fought for us have been in recent thoughts. Our family knows it is unlikely that DB and others like him, deployed to Afghanistan, will be remembered in the public consciousness in the same manner.

The marking of DB’s repatriation showed us however that despite the public unease towards the war that he died in, there’s still respect for troops and that they serve. For our family, this simple, solemn act of community acknowledgement has provided tremendous comfort and support, both then and now. We thank you for it.

 

How to keep passwords confidential while bequeathing them to your next of kin: digital services

 

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Copyright: Asif Akbar

A legal representative such as a solicitor or lawyer can act as a third party confidant in helping you plan a digital afterlife and privately keep your passwords on file for next of kin. There is also an increasing number of digital afterlife and secure online password services that will help you assign important information such as bank or legal documents to nominated beneficiaries as well as release usernames and passwords according to your instructions.

These can be more convenient for people who are active internet users changing passwords several times a year across multiple accounts. They allow users to automatically access and update their information whenever they want without the need to work through another person. This is useful if someone has to respond quickly to a bug or security threat.

There are other advantages too. Online services concerned with passwords and passing on digital legacies are varied in what they offer but generally speaking, they aim to centrally manage multiple sources of data in one place. Many include a decent amount of storage for the account holder to organise photos, memories, notes and documents with friendly user interfaces for viewing and downloading. On the whole, they encourage users to think in a structured way about doing an inventory of their online life and the digital legacy that they’d like to share.

When doing your research, it’s worth fully understanding how the service will verify when it is time to share your confidential information. Because of their nature, digital afterlife services are often automated and take a variety of approaches to ascertain if someone has died and if their data should be passed on. Some such as Google Inactive Manager provide information to next of or nominated kin if the account holder hasn’t logged into the service for a period of time. Others, will send prompts, such as emails or texts to customers periodically, asking them to confirm that they are still alive. If there’s no reply, these companies will often do additional checks to establish if the account holder is deceased before finally distributing information to next of kin.

If you don’t check in with or respond to this kind of service within your agreed time period, you may end up sharing information before it’s time, something that will be distressing, awkward and have security implications for you. Ensure that you fully understand the terms and conditions as well as the style and format of communication this kind of service has – both with you and your next of kin.

Also, make sure that your digital service fits in with your lifestyle. If you are not likely to check in regularly with a service that relies on you to do so, either because you don’t spend a lot of time online or you’re unlikely to remember, this type of offering won’t be a convenient option. Similarly, a digital legacy plan that operates by sending a series of electronic prompts asking you to confirm that you are alive won’t work for you if this type of communication bugs you.

Given that the digital afterlife industry is still an immature one, I’d recommend that you find out what the financial status or longer term vision is of the organisation that you’re considering. There have been a few mergers of late. Entrustet was acquired by SecureSafe and more recently PasswordBox bought LegacyLocker. Shifts happen in any industry but it’s worth asking any potential company that’s going to be charged with your digital legacy, what its longer term goals are and how it is going to support them. What are its contingency plans for your data if it expires before you do?

Finally, it’s worth re-iterating that you should check terms and conditions to fully understand what you’re subscribing to, what your responsibilities are when using the service as well as the service provider’s accountability to you. According to Damin Murdock, Principal Lawyer for MurdockCheng Legal Practice, the main benefit of storing your digital estate with a lawyer as opposed to an online platform is that the client will have the comfort of knowing a law firm has a succession plan and is bound by strict rules, regulations and statutory duties. With an online platform, you are only bound by terms and conditions of use for the online platform. Be clear what kind of jurisdictional rules may apply to you and what its commitment is to you and your data.

What digital services exist to manage and transition passwords and other important documentation to next of kin?

Separating the living from the dead on Facebook

In a previous post, I looked into how we group our friends on a day to day basis depending on interests, ideology, personality and our relationship to them. This doesn’t occur to the same degree in our online communities, because it’s more convenient not to and platforms are not yet designed to accommodate nuances in our social graph.

In real life, we also compartmentalise the ways in which we honour our dead.

Recently I attended a school reunion. This is the sort of event that I would ordinarily avoid, but it was a special occasion. My brother and I were both pupils at the same school for many years. Following the news of his death, they elected to hold a chapel service and unveil a memorial plaque in his name at their annual old boys and old girls day.

The service was deferential and took place in the darkened, quiet, solemn environment of the chapel. Prayers were offered, sympathies and reminisces were shared. And then… the congregation headed outside to the lawns where the sun was conveniently shining, to mingle and sip on Pimms while consuming delicious indulgent treats such as strawberries with cream and chocolate cake.

Shrines, graves, areas of worship, significant landmarks provide havens for reflection and commemoration. As a society, we assign times when a community unites to remember thofacebook-memorialization-afterlife-digitalse who have died. Through events, rituals and designated locations, we have times to mourn or reflect and times to live in the present.

Yet our online lives do not reflect this reality and I suspect this is why some people find it difficult when they continue to see a ghostly presence of their deceased friends on social media – on their friends list, tagged post-mortem activity, or automated suggestions in their newsfeeds.

None of the mainstream social networks allow people to separate profiles of deceased friends or acquaintances from their living present-day active ones. Relatives of those who have died might have the option of closing their accounts or (in the case of Facebook) continuing the account but memorialising it. Of course, few people are likely to be aware that memorialisation options even exist, and if they do, the options are fairly black and white.

These limited options do not do justice to the memory of those who have passed away. Nor do they assist our need for ritual to remember them. Personally, I think there’s a huge opportunity for social media platforms to develop separate community spaces designed specifically to commemorate those who have died, where the network connections of the deceased can reflect on past memories together.

Doing this would enable this type of memorial activity to be separate to other day to day social communication with still living connections, connections who may otherwise have no association with those being remembered.

Birthdays, important dates or events in the deceased’s history could be marked in a separate, sincere and respectful environment, fostering a quality of discussion that is more personal and relevant to those who were part of their life. It would  help to ameliorate the awkwardness that death often evokes in other day to day conversations with the living.

Lastly, by introducing separate commemoration areas on social networks, we would publicly acknowledge a person’s death on these relatively new platforms. In a previous age – and today still – a person’s passing was published in a newspaper or community annals to record that person’s existence and history in records.

Currently, anyone who didn’t know of my brother’s death would have no way of knowing via his social existence. He doesn’t show up in Facebook search given his account is memorialised. This is surely restricting the opportunity for greater engagement in the future, when members from extended communities want to reminisce or pass on messages of condolence. In an age when individuals are connecting and searching for connections online, this type of status omission will become more striking by its absence, over time.

What happens to Google email & online information when someone dies?

When people lose someone close to them, they frequently seek to find out more about what they were thinking or doing before they died. It’s as though they are trying to get a complete sense of the person and how they related to everyone else and the world around them.

Accessing secure information such as email is one way that mourners have sought to do this. However until recently, Google has restricted the ability of family members to see account information of the relatives who have died. It has required a legal process. The company has stated that their focus is to consider the privacy of users who sign up to their services – whether living or dead.

This changed in April 2013 when Google announced that their users are now able to nominate a next of kin or someone close to them which allows them access their account data if the account has been inactive for a period of three or more months. It’s called Google Inactive Manager. This will potentially be an enormous comfort for families trying to delve into their loved ones’ histories, sparking memories as well as a greater understanding of who they were. But what are the consequences? Could it in fact open Pandora’s box?

Why family members may want access to your emails and information

Earlier this year, my folks and I visited an army barracks in Catterick, UK to see some soldiers that my brother, DBS, helped to recruit to his Battalion. It was a good day, meeting some of the officers that he served with and finding out more about the customs, traditions and the way of life that he became part of.

Chatting with one of the officers over lunch, he told me that one of the most common questions that families ask when dealing with the news that they have lost someone while on active duty is “did he or she receive my parcel?” They want to know if their son, daughter, spouse or sibling knew that they were in their thoughts and were loved. Even if the recipient hadn’t had a chance to consume or open the package, their families are relieved and grateful if they know it was received. The gift symbolises their act of thinking about and loving them.

I was immediately struck by this conversation and could relate to what the offer had said. When I was informed of my brother’s death, my first response was “did he know that I loved him?” not long followed by “but I haven’t sent him his parcel,” a box of goodies that I’d bought a few days prior but hadn’t yet mailed.  It is a deeply held regret.

By contrast, I knew that my brother had thought of me. Two days later a postcard arrived from him that had taken some time to arrive from overseas, telling me not to worry and that he and his boys were well trained and prepared. He would see me soon. I could hear his voice as I read it and I felt a combination of being elated because I had received his thoughtful message and devastated because its timing was like a punch in the stomach.

I had sent DBS several emails in the month prior to his death to his Google gmail account. However, because of the nature of his work, I wasn’t sure that he had received them. He hadn’t replied. Army representatives at his repatriation and funeral, tried to assure me that he may have read them. “Camps often have internet”, they said. “Perhaps he was able to check into his account between duties”.

It wasn’t something that I was able to find out definitively from Google though. Initial enquiries by the MOD (Military of Defence) and ourselves to access his account were rebutted.

DBS was old fashioned in his approach to communicating with friends. He wrote pen on paper letters and mailed them to friends and family. By contrast, I preferred online forms of communication such as email and social and now believe as a result, that a significant period of my personal history has been lost.

By committing his words down on a card, I had a record of his thoughts for me. They were there in black and white. In my initial stages of grief, not knowing whether or not he had received my correspondence meant I had no guarantee — for a while — that he knew mine for him.

Respecting someone’s privacy while managing a digital estate

In military life, it’s a common ritual to send parcels and mail to men and women in the field. Increasingly though in our digital age, emails and notes through social networking platforms have primarily become our means of communicating, symbols if you like, that convey we’re thinking of others. Given this trend, it’s no wonder that we want to see these sent and received messages from behind a username and password.

In an earlier post, I mentioned how our family wanted to respect DBS’s privacy when handling data stored on his laptop with our desire to find out more about him. We did this by asking a third party to look through its contents, separating the information he would have wanted us to see from the notes and conversations that he would likely preferred we didn’t.

We would have applied the same practice to his email handling if we had been allowed to. This is certainly something I would recommend to families going through this experience of looking through email data of someone who has died, whether they access this information via the Google Inactive Manager or have obtained the right to read it through as the result of a legal process.

Being able to access a deceased person’s Google account data will likely be beneficial when managing their estate if gmail is their principal personal email account. For instance, resetting unknown passwords to 3rd party services such as iTunes, online banking, other social networking accounts is largely done via email.

There are also potential downsides to reading through someone’s private history and relationships. By looking through these archives, you are likely to become privy to a world inhabited by all kinds of private conversations. People often have secret lives, or have done things or have feelings that the people closest them may not know about. Even if this is not the case, online conversations can easily be misinterpreted.

Google Inactive Manager – features & things to consider when setting this service up

What happens to a Facebook profile when someone dies?

A few years back, Facebook introduced a feature in which you can memorialise the Facebook profile of someone who has died. In brief, this means that once a death certificate or similar evidence is provided to the social networking site, the profile of the deceased effectively becomes inactive yet remains visible to their network. The person’s account can no longer be accessed, so new friends cannot be accepted; their friendship network remains as it was, just before they died.

Automated updates such as the person’s birthday, likes or recommendations are completely switched off, so Facebook friends and friends of friends will not receive “say Happy Birthday” or “do you know?” updates from the person who has died.

I understand why some of the memorialisation features were introduced and why. Privacy for the account holder is a key consideration and understandably so. All the same, our recent experience of losing a family member shows that for various reasons, these features are not always beneficial to the deceased or grieving family and friends. And in some cases, they do not go far enough.

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HOW WE INTERACT IS DIFFERENT WHEN ONLINE & WHEN WE’RE WITH SOMEONE

After my brother’s funeral last year, our family held drinks with friends and colleagues to share stories about him in one of his old pub haunts. At one point, after many toasts had been made and stories shared, I found myself sitting at a table with five other women who all turned out to be his ex-girlfriends.

The conversation was menacingly polite until one of the group started to draw comparisons between herself and another, noting how similar she thought they were. The other disagreed and suddenly, the conversation livened up. There was some fairly vocal discussion as others joined in and compared opinions. The situation felt awkward, while civilised. I wanted to disappear and eavesdrop from a safe distance but I didn’t; it was such an extraordinary situation.

This gathering initially seemed so unlikely. It made sense after thinking it through. In a room full of disparate friendship groups and cliques, these women gravitated towards each other because they shared a common experience; each sharing a part of my brother’s life.

The idea of former flames converging in one place is enough to set most pulses racing. This situation is not one my brother could have easily endured if he were alive. You could feel a palpable sense of relief (mixed with disappointment) from others in the room when the group disbanded.Communities_memories_digital afterlife

In our day-to-day lives, we compartmentalise and in turn, group ourselves with others depending on how we relate to them or share common interests. Where we have different interests and groups of friends, we also tend to communicate with them separately and in multiple ways. And in stark contrast to the previously mentioned scene, we very often avoid mixing friends or acquaintances where we anticipate conflict, awkwardness, lack of commonality or differences in personality or ideology.

In our digital spaces, we do not take this multi-faceted approach to communicating. We mostly take a one approach fits all when sharing news with our networks, largely because it’s convenient. On spaces such as Facebook, you can separate groups of friends but few bother to put the effort in to maintain them. Even if you do, the platform just doesn’t accommodate the degrees of nuance of our in-person social interactions.

Similarly, when we communicate via other social platforms such as Twitter, FourSquare or Pinterest, we broadcast to all our connections, whether or not it is relevant to everyone who is connected with us. We curate and self-censor to what we feel comfortable sharing across our multi-faceted friendship groups, then monitor, moderate and occasionally censor what people post in return.

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ISSUES WITH MEMORIALISATION

When Facebook receives a notice to memorialise, the profile of the deceased user becomes inactive and it has no one actively managing the account anymore. If no one has access to managing the Facebook account of the person who has died, no one is able to continue curating the ongoing dialogue around his/her life and death. There is no one to manage the public messages that are sent within the wider network, posted on the deceased’s profile wall.

This requires the co-operation of all friends of that person to communicate in a way that is respectful – not only to the memory of their friend and in a way that he or she would have appreciated, but also in a manner that respects the feelings and boundaries of others in his or her network. Our recent experience shows this doesn’t always happen.

Perhaps this is because the impersonal nature of posting on a wall means it is easier to forget (or never know) who is in the audience. After all, an in-person discussion more often than not, starts with an introduction and an awareness that someone else is part of the conversation.

My brother’s death, as is often the case with military deaths, was reported widely in the media. There were cases of people trying to attach and position themselves to the publicity, magnifying their relationship with him, sometimes speaking for him. Such actions, a friend pointed out, are what’s known as grief tourism.

Friends and family objected to some of the photos and private as well as public messages that certain friends posted on his wall and across his network. When it happened, we had to intervene behind the scenes and encourage more sensitive behaviour.

It’s not possible to change the security levels around the profile once memorialised either, which means that there’s no way to approve comments to the wall or timeline if maximum security settings were established. And where security settings are overly liberal, a laissez-faire wall risks causing distress to family and friends, just as their grief is most sensitive.

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There is the option of setting up a Facebook page to counter some of the issues I’ve mentioned here. This is a commonly taken approach which I’ve seen happen within my own network when family members or friends have set up a memorial page for someone who has died. They’ve done this in part to provide a platform for the community grieving process as well as to bring together photos and past memories so they can see memories they may not have been part of before. This is what Facebook recommends and it is a great opportunity if you want to increase the profile of the person who has died. For instance, it can support a desire to honour them publicly, build awareness around a related cause or conduct fundraising in their name.

On the other hand, it can also mean that relatives and close friends have multiple destinations to monitor, moderate or remember that person by. When setting up a separate page, they may not have access to the deceased’s network to encourage people to follow a new memorial destination. The open nature of a page also means that it’s difficult to limit a page to friends, family and acquaintances if the goal is for more private reflection; it can lead to a situation that’s wrought with issues if the death has been in the public eye.

Understanding that privacy — for the deceased as well as those they have privately communicated with — needs to be respected, there must surely be a compromise. For instance, offering the option for Facebook users to pass account management to the next of kin or nominated person in the event of their death, so that their chosen representative can moderate community discussions, protect the public legacy of the deceased as well as monitor security settings.

This type of external control could co-exist with existing memorialisation features such as restricting access to features such as Facebook messages while dis-allowing new friendship connections, birthday reminders or other types of profile recommendations. A nomination process would offer greater protection for the interests of the deceased as well as greater recourse for the community in the event that mediation is required.

NEXT UP: MANAGING A COMMUNITY ON FACEBOOK OF SOMEONE WHO HAS DIED + CONSIDERING FACEBOOK IN ESTATE PLANNING

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