Who owns your digital data in a future far, far away?

digital_data_digital_afterlife_digital_historyI’ve been speaking with a variety of researchers on the legal aspects around our digital accounts and what happens to them after we die. Often the discussion focuses on who is entitled to access a deceased person’s online account data – such as email, photos or documents – and the consensus is that it’s complicated.

Some platforms such as Google have started to allow users to nominate next of kin, family or friends to receive their personal information once their account becomes inactive. With the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act approved in the US (July 2014), we may see a system where a personal representative of a deceased person’s estate has as much right to manage the digital assets of the deceased in the same way they would their tangible assets. Currently ownership of digital assets often remain with online services such as Facebook and Yahoo unless contested through the legal system by a next of kin.

While laws are catching up with digital and social technologies, Damian McCallig, a PhD candidate from the School of Law at National University of Ireland in Galway is curious to know what will happen to our data a generation or more after we die.

As he points out, current copyright laws in countries like the UK and Australia allow someone’s personal information to become available in the public domain several years after that individual has died. Records around births, deaths and marriages are accessible by researchers or family members interested in their genealogy or a previous generation’s history. Unpublished works such as diaries or letters can be published without the permission of their estate, as long as a certain period of time has passed since the author died. In the UK, this is seventy years, although there are specific exemptions.

“Currently a lot of today’s information that is relevant for the researchers and historians of the future is behind walls and owned by companies,” says McCallig. “For instance, Barack Obama has a Twitter account which will hold public tweets but also private messages which are gated. This information will be relevant from a historical and research point of view. Previously these kinds of notes would have become available after a set period of time. What copyright laws apply to this digital data managed by private organisations?”

McCallig believes that Facebook would have been alerted to the opportunity around its memorialised accounts (what is Facebook memorialisation?) when a father campaigned for a ‘look back’ video to be made for his son who died in 2012, attracting widespread support. He wonders if Facebook is assessing the commercial potential for its deceased accounts in the long term. Facebook’s main revenue stream comes from advertising, based on driving eyeballs to ad creative and sponsored posts. Memorialised Facebook accounts offer no value to marketers or monetisation options for the company in its current model.

While he’s not certain on how Facebook would commercialise these accounts, likely scenarios could include charging researchers, educational institutions, public information bodies and even individuals for access to archival information.

“Facebook is able to provide insights on how communities reacted to news and events within specific contexts or a particular point in time. It can detail emotional responses as well as online behaviour across timelines and networks,” says McCallig. “That’s of tremendous value to future historians.”

If this is the case, should these historical insights and archives be available freely to the public or remain in the hands of commercial companies? And if Facebook fails to survive, should there be a contingency plan to protect and share our histories with future generations?

What do you think?

Read more about Damian McCallig’s perspectives on Digital Remains or connect with him on Twitter.

 

 

Messages from Beyond

Digital afterlife messages from beyond

Ben Earwicker, Garrison Photography

I love reading through and reminding myself of the messages received from DBS after he died. When I say that, I don’t mean ‘other realm’ kind of messages delivered by a psychic or similar. Instead, I’m referring to handwritten notes or cards written by him and addressed to me which I received after his death.

They provided tremendous comfort and still do. Which has made me think about how I should leave messages to friends and family for when my time comes. It’s not an easy thing to think about but if you’re making a digital will that addresses practical items such as password transfer to next of kin or instructions on what to do with your digital information, including a personal message with this information may be a logical next step.

 

Messages from DBS

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned that my brother preferred committing thoughts down by pen and paper as opposed to using email or social. We weren’t reliable communicators but despite this, I received multiple messages from him over a period of several weeks after he died.

The first message I received from DBS was two days after his death. Sitting in my mailbox, was a postcard that had been sent several weeks previously but took its time to arrive because he’d sent it from a very remote overseas location. Later there was the card he’d scrawled to me in Afghanistan but that he hadn’t had a chance to send which came back with his personal effects.

Months later when sorting through his papers at home, I came across his ‘unofficial’ will, a piece of dated A4 paper in his beautiful, black ink writing stating his intention for his estate. While mostly formal in nature, he’d included a personal message to me. I was touched and moved for days afterwards.

Finally, his diary revealed what I hadn’t been able to discover from Google because of their stance they took (at that time) of not sharing an account holder’s data with next of kin without going through legal proceedings. When DBS died, one of the first things I wanted to know at the time and eventually obsessed about, was whether or not he had read my emails that I’d sent to him while he was stationed in Afghanistan. Somehow, not knowing if he had received them meant that they started to represent something more significant for me; whether or not he knew that he was in my thoughts and that I loved him.

When I eventually brought myself to read his diary months later, I saw an entry dated 21 October that opened with…. ”Today, I received another lovely email from Emily….”

Words cannot describe how I felt at that time. It seemed as though I had received a personal answer from him to the question that had hounded me for a significant period of time.

Learn how to transition your email and personal data to next of kin using Google Inactive Manager.

Things to consider when working with digital services offering to send messages to loved ones

DBS hadn’t planned the way in which I received messages from him after he died with the exception of his handwritten will. I feel fortunate though that I received them and the emotional benefits are unquantifiable. On each occasion, his notes gave me a real sense of happiness and I almost felt as if he was visiting me in some way. I still glow when I think about them and value these mementos.

For anyone considering estate planning, I’d recommend including this kind of personal touch for friends and family for conveying love and providing comfort.

Given my own experience, I’m a fan of planning with handwritten notes however, there are now a wealth of digital services that you can work with to leave messages for loved ones with. A note of caution though. If you plan to go digital, check with the company to check their stability and financial status. A few companies I’ve researched from 2007 have been acquired or simply shut up shop, such can be the fleeting, temporary nature of digital. Also beware of the organisations that don’t have a long term vision or plan for their business. You want to be confident when signing up to a service that it will comfortably outlive you and honour your wishes in the future.

In all dealings with companies assisting you with digital afterlife services, I’d suggest researching with the following questions in mind:

  • How long is their commitment to providing digital services? Are they thinking day-to-day terms or over fifty years, hundred years?
  • What is their financial status?
  • What will happen to customers’ planning services in the event that they fold/are acquired?
  • Where how/will they share your final message? If it’s via a third party social networking platform, what happens to your message if the platform no longer exists?

It’s a new digital realm so it’s wise to do your background research. And spend some time understanding terms and conditions, particularly around what kind of jurisdictional rules may apply to you from a legal perspective and on what basis the company will share private data.

If you’re not confident about a digital service, do your own video recording and give it to your solicitor or a close family member or friend to look after while attending to your estate planning. It doesn’t have to be complicated. Based on my own experience, a simple handwritten note placed somewhere safely or with someone can make all the difference to those left behind.

COMING SOON: DIGITAL AFTERLIFE MESSAGE SERVICES

Digital services for managing passwords and other important information

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 are also many, many different digital legacy and afterlife services that are emerging and you can compare their approach. Here are some digital services that store and help you organise your confidential information including passwords and offer the option to transfer relevant information to beneficiaries when the time comes.

These are ones that I’ve been made aware of recently but not necessarily trialled. I’d recommend that you do research services thoroughly before committing to make sure that you find one that suits your requirements.  Many digital offerings provide the option of a free trial as well.

Are there others you’d suggest? If so, please drop details in the comments section below.

 

Cirrus Legacy

This service (UK based) allows clients to manage their online accounts on a day to day basis as well as upload and store critical documents appertaining to their life. Account information and documents or files can be assigned to an executor or a guardian after death to carry out their last wishes. Cirrus does not give ownership to any financial, sentimental, intellectual or social data but offers are a series of signposts if you will to the accounts for executors and family to deal with on a one to one basis.

According to Paul Golding who owes Cirrus Legacy, if the firm was acquired the data would move to the new owners, who would have to adhere to our clients wishes in regards to sharing and the usage of their personal information as specified by the client at sign-up. If the firm were to close down, a process is in place granting time for the individual client to retrieve their stored information. The company also runs an affiliate program across a UK solicitor network.

Passing Bye

Passing Bye focuses on providing a file vault for documents and a secure central password management system but also offers a journal type facility where you can store favourite personal items such as stories, memories, recipes, photos or videos. Another feature highlighted is the option to store last final messages which are sent to intended recipients when you’re gone. Sharing options and rights are built into the service and subscribers pay on an annual basis with a free 30 day trial available.

Planned Departure

Another service (UK based) that acts like an electronic vault, holding your important documents, account details and passwords. It was designed and built specifically for digital afterlife planning and requires you to give contact details for next of kin or nominated representatives to speak to when the time comes. The company offers a 14 day trial and offers payment plans on a monthly, yearly or lifetime basis.

SafelyFiled

SafelyFiled offers a platform for users to organise, store, and retrieve important documents and account details. It then allows the account owner to share information with family members or professional advisor. Different types of information can be shared with different beneficiaries and prompts are sent when it’s time to update or renew important documents. SafelyFiled offers a free account for medical information and a 30 day money back guarantee on other services if not fulfilling your needs. It also offers very useful checklist resources.

Your Digital File

Your Digital File is a newly launched service based in Australia specialising in the digital storage,sharing and signing of confidential documents. It positions itself as a hyper secure service both for personal and corporate use..

It securely protects confidential files from others (even Your Digital File can’t see them) and provides a secure means to share and manage documents. Nominated documents (ie wills), are released to beneficiaries when the account holder dies once verified by Your Digital File. The company has a tiered level of account offerings based on how much storage a subscriber needs.

 

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

 

digital_afterlife_password_security

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?

How can you keep your passwords confidential while providing to next of kin when the time comes?

Copyright: Patrick Hajzler

Copyright: Patrick Hajzler

You may be thinking about what happens to your digital estate after you die and you’ve read that it’s wise to provide a list of your online accounts and passwords to your nominated friend, family member or next of kin.

What options are available to you to transition this information securely and reliably? The chances are you won’t want to share sensitive log-in and account details to your next of kin while you are alive for many reasons including security. There are several third party organisations that will transition documents, digital password information or instructions to people you nominate to receive these when you die. In this article, we look at the benefits of using a solicitor or lawyer. Compare digital services and what to consider when assessing an online option.

Many organisations including Away For a Bit have suggested that usernames and passwords are provided to a solicitor or lawyer which can then be transferred to the right person or people as part of your estate.

For those wondering if this is a secure process, in Australia, lawyers are bound by both law and Professional Conduct Rules.

According to Paul Gordon, Associate at Finlaysons, “If a lawyer breaches these, they could be disqualified from practicing as a lawyer and could face additional penalties.”

These rules apply when solicitors are tasked with looking after information deemed confidential by the client. Gordon points out that “Professional Conduct Rules (which differ slightly between states and territories) require lawyers to keep information provided to them by their clients confidential, except in some very limited circumstances. If a list of usernames and passwords were to be provided to a solicitor, this would be treated no differently.”

There are advantages to using a solicitor versus using a digital service to pass on confidential password data. If your next of kin or family member is not online savvy then they may be overwhelmed by the processes involved with a digital transfer of this information to them. Or they may not even read the electronic communication that alerts them to its existence.

By using a solicitor, the recipient also has the benefit of being able to speak to and question someone personally about account information that has been included in a deceased person’s estate.

It’s best not to include a summary of your accounts and their access details directly in a will however. Once a Last Will and Testament is filed for probate within the appropriate state, it becomes a public document as does any codicil attached to a will.

For security and practical reasons, Gordon says that “he would recommend that this be given as a separate document to your lawyers for many reasons, including the fact that every time you changed your passwords, or added a new one, you would have to change the will!”

Things to consider

  • People considering using their lawyers to safeguard their digital identity should enquire about what security and confidentiality measures apply.
  • There may be a fee incurred when using a solicitor or lawyer to look after your documentation.
  • Be aware if the terms and conditions of the digital services you use allow you to disclose username/password information to your lawyer or next of kin when the time comes.

Change to memorialisation + “Look Back” videos for Facebook deceased

Facebook made an announcement last week which shows that it has been giving some thought to how the social networking platform can best help people remember and celebrate their loved ones.

The first change they’ve introduced is that the Facebook memorialisation feature (what is memorialisation?) will continue to keep the account holder’s visibility features set as they were before the person died. Previously, only people set as ‘friends’ were able to see and interact with their page. So if a person decides that ‘friends’ and ‘friends of friends’ are able to their wall whilst living, these same groups of people will be able to see that person’s account after they have died.

Also… remember the Look Back video that has being doing the rounds on Facebook? This is the personalised video feature that shows users’ top content moments over the past ten years, launched to coincide with Facebook’s ten year anniversary. After one father’s appeal to Facebook for a Look Back video for his son who died in 2012, Facebook have made a request process available for others who have deceased friends and would like to view a Look Back video for them.  To apply and see a Look Back video for a deceased friend, the account must be memorialised and the requester must have ‘friend’ status. The requester will be sent a private link which cannot be shared.

Facebook have placed emphasis on the privacy of account holders and honouring this in life and in death. The company has also alluded to additional changes in upcoming months so that people can better establish how they want to be remembered on Facebook and what they want to leave behind for others. I’m hoping that they are considering a living will arrangement in the same way Google has set up its Google Inactive Manager.

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