Who owns a person’s digital and online data when they die?

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Apple recently made national news following their misunderstanding of an estate related query from one of their customers in the UK.

A son inherited his mother’s iPad device and he appealed to the manufacturer to help him unlock it.  The company asked for a series of legal steps to be undertaken and documents to be provided with the request as their concern was to protect the account information, data and content of the original owner.

When the company realised that the son only wanted to use the device and for it to be returned to its factory settings, that is to say, wiped clean of its previous owner’s accounts, data and history, it duly complied and fulfilled the request.

This news story highlighted that online data and accounts do not automatically have the same status as we associate with traditional or fixed assets that form part of an estate. In this case, while the iPad as a device was seen as transferable from person to person, the data and software contained within it was not and may not have been, even if wishes regarding it had been explicitly outlined in a will.

Who actually owns digital assets is a key yet unclear issue in today’s estate and legacy planning. 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.”

In a previous post, I’ve mentioned how people who have lost relatives or friends often have a drive to find out more about them, including their digital lives. While this latest case with Apple made headlines, it’s not an uncommon event. 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.

“I always recommend my clients to have a list of all bank accounts, passwords, PIN numbers and so forth with respect to financial institutions,” Murdock says.

“The same should apply for digital accounts. Next time you see a lawyer to update your Will, you should ask that lawyer to help you include your digital accounts, usernames and passwords. They can also work with you to provide for all intellectual property rights contained in each asset to be transferred to the respective beneficiary. Lastly, you can waive your rights to privacy so your Executor can gain access to your accounts and deal with them in accordance with your wishes (if this is what you really want).”

Gordon concurs and doesn’t anticipate changes in legislation to digital and online asset ownership anytime soon.

“In the US, several states have passed laws which deal with access to social media accounts, allowing the executor to take control after death. This is slowly creeping across the States but is yet to appear in Australia.”

He agrees that it is important to consider what will happen after you die and make sure it is well documented, ideally in a will, but also known amongst family members.

“Like a lot of these things, people often put them off as it means facing up to their own mortality. But it is important to do to save your loved ones from having to go through difficult and complex legal processes to get access to your online assets.”

How to give someone access to your Google email and data; manage your digital afterlife

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Google Inactive Manager is a recent introduction by Google to allow account holders to share their email and data with a nominated next of kin or friends after they have died or have stopped using Google services. A previous post looks at the pros and cons of using Google Inactive Manager and why you might want to do so. Here’s a step by step guide to help you this up this function…

Setting up Google Inactive Manager

Go to your Google homepage, click on your profile or avatar picture at the top right hand side of the page and select ‘Account’ after your name. You’ll need to be logged in to set up this feature.

Once in your ‘Account’ page, select the ‘Data tools’ option at the top of the page and then click on ‘Set up Inactive Google Manager’.

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You’ll be presented with the Google Inactive Manager dashboard. Click on ‘Set up’ to get started.

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First you’ll need to provide a mobile phone number. Click on the ‘Add mobile phone number’. The system is intuitive so it doesn’t matter if you type in a zero after the country code or leave spaces between numbers.

Once done, hit the ‘Send verification code’ button – it should send a code to your phone via SMS which consists of a series of numbers or letters and numbers. Add to the ‘Verify number’ box which appears and click ‘Confirm’.

You can also add another email address to receive updates or alerts at this point.

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Once you’ve provided your contact details, select a timeout period on the Google Inactive Manager homepage. This means the length of time that you leave your Google account inactive, i.e. the period during which you do not log into Google for email, search, Google+, Drive or any of the Google tools. The minimum period is 3 months, the maximum period is 18 months. Think of the feature you most commonly use on Google and base a time period around that.

Remember though, Google only knows that you’ve used your account if you have logged into your account. If you use Google search everyday but are not signed in then you check your email every six months which you have to sign in for, Google will register the six month email activity on your account but not the search.

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Next, select ‘Add trusted contact’. You can nominate up to 10 contacts who will have three months to download your data once the account is inactive. Here’s where you can enter the email details of the person(s) you nominate to receive your data. Check the ‘Share my data with this contact option’ to ensure that they are able to receive the data later. If there is someone that you don’t want to have access to your email or other Google data but would like to send them a message, you can add a note for them at this point which the recipient will receive when the timeout period has finished.

 add trusted contact

Select the Google data that you would like your nominated person(s) to download. As well as making sure your contact details are correct, you’ll need to verify the correct phone number for your nominated contact(s). You’ll also need to update your contact’s mobile phone if this changes over time so that they will be able to access your account once it has become inactive. You can pick and choose what your nominated contact(s) will be able to download and access.

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After hitting the ‘Next’ button, you’ll be taken to a page where you can leave a message for the person you’ve nominated to receive your Google data. While setting up Google Inactive Manager is practical, the message doesn’t have to be. It’s a good opportunity to leave a thoughtful message behind for someone who is grieving. What would they want to hear? Anything you want them to know? What you say could make a difference to them.

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Google Inactive Manager also allows you to set up an auto-response to incoming email once your Google account has become inactive.

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Lastly, you decide what happens to your Google account once your outlined actions have been completed. Would you like the account to be deleted? Google Inactive Manager includes this option which will also remove any public comments/data you have, for instance on YouTube or Google+.

opt_delete_google_account_digitalafterlife_deathOnce you’ve hit ‘Enable’, your Google settings are confirmed. Remember, you are able to update your settings at any point. Visit this earlier post on things to consider when setting up Google Inactive Manager.

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

Is digital eroding our past?

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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.

The people in our family have always hoarded personal mementos. Correspondence, photos, interesting lists, old membership cards and random but significant bits of paper – we have thrown these haphazard fragments of personal history into cardboard boxes, under beds and in drawers. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been sorting through forty years of these memory boxes.

Among them, I discovered perhaps the first recorded account of my thirteen year old self winding up my five year old brother. I was at boarding school at the time, and written letters were my main connection to home. The distance taught us the value of letter writing, between each other, family and friends. Given that we kept most of these letters, I was able to eventually piece together this incident from three perspectives, with letters from my mother providing a third perspective. His response to my paper trolling was assertive while at the same time, totally adorable and generous. And my mother’s intervention demonstrated her humorous side in how she decided to adjudicate the situation.

Preserving memories_ written v. digital afterlife

Looking back on correspondence from the past has been fun, comforting and enlightening. It documents so much about our family and our relationships with each other. Old letters have been a joy to look through and reminisce over, sometimes providing a reminder of situations that I hadn’t thought about for years. Sometimes, they recount events that I have no memory of at all.

I’m not sure when I stopped writing letters, however my brother continued to be an avid correspondent with ink and paper.

It was a significant occasion when he got his first email account as I had been encouraging him to do so for a while. In one of his many boxes, I uncovered a printed copy of our first email conversation from the late 1990s.

The email address I was using at that time was also my first email account, which until a fortnight or so ago I hadn’t thought about in ten years. But after trying to access it again to look for any other emails between us, I discovered that the email provider had been acquired, renamed and that my account no longer existed.

Not only have I lost this period of history, I’ve lost messages from the future. For example, at the opening of the London Millennium Dome, visitors were asked to provide their email addresses accompanied by a short message before leaving the exhibition. The Dome said they would send these notes back to their owners decades later as a reminder of what they had been thinking about that day.

I won’t receive that obnoxious message from my younger self outlining what a disappointment I felt the Dome had been and I suspect few of the thousands of visitors to the Dome will receive theirs. Given most people will have changed their email address at least once since then, I imagine the bounce rate on that particular mailout – if they even bother – will be close to 100%. Yet in my boxes of memories I still have the postcard and novelty over sized pencil that I bought from the Dome gift shop, items that on face value are junk but they’ve served a purpose of sparking distinct memories of that day.

Preserving memories_written v digital afterlife

My point is that I’ve consistently kept physical mementos, while I haven’t applied the same consideration to digital history and correspondence. I have a rich mine of private correspondence which provides a recorded history up to my early 20s. But as soon as I moved to email, it almost immediately runs dry, as my communications quickly moved online.

A fifteen year gap to now clearly demonstrates a casual attitude toward personal email archiving. Of course, notes and correspondence have been captured in other ways, for instance on Facebook and even MySpace walls or apps such as Foursquare or Twitter. But these tend to be public interactions so their nature is less personal.

In the past decade, I’ve moved from Caramail to Hotmail to Yahoo to Gmail for social use, as well as a multitude of work email addresses. Unfortunately, some of these accounts are now lost and no longer accessible. The speed in which technology platforms change means that it’s important to archive personal conversations as they happen. 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.

While I’m not suggesting that every single personal email conversation must be stored, this recent archiving experience has highlighted the value of a system – even one that is chaotic and ad-hoc – to continually capture personal messages and notes so they aren’t lost to my future self. A new way of communicating requires a new way of archiving. For the email accounts I can still access, I plan to rummage through them like old cardboard boxes and recover personal conversations. Maybe, I’ll be able to re-connect with people from the past.

If you do a search on email archiving, there’s plenty of advice on how to manage old accounts and email management. Here’s a wrap of articles that I’ve found useful. If you have other tips to add, please do so below. All ideas are welcome.

The pen v. the keyboard and privacy in death

Digital afterlife_ estate planning &issues & privacy

A few weeks after my brother’s death, Mum and Dad received eight large cardboard boxes of his personal effects from where he was stationed in Afghanistan as well as from his UK base living quarters. His laptop was included amongst these.

We had and still have an insatiable desire to find out more about him, piecing together strands of his life story like a jigsaw puzzle as we look through old photos and have conversations with his friends.

Our curiosity extended to his laptop but at the same time, we felt uncertain about whether we should look into its contents. The existence of a username and password on a laptop changes the way that you feel about accessing someone’s information contained within, whether they are alive or not. It’s generally considered taboo.

We wouldn’t have thought less of him, regardless of (almost) anything we discovered.  Our concern was though, would he have wanted his family or friends to know what was beyond his screensaver? He was rigorous about changing passwords frequently.

Despite our initial reticence, our solution was to ask an acquaintance who didn’t know him to crack into and look through the laptop’s content, deciphering what he might have wanted to share with family or friends and what he was more likely to want to remain private. That way, conversations, photos, old internet searches, notes and chat via apps such as WhatApp that he may have wanted to stay confidential, remained confidential.

It seemed to be a good compromise.  We could continue to find out more about my brother’s adventures through previewed items such as photos or snapshots of his most recent selections in music and movies via download histories or databases. Meanwhile, we felt he kept his dignity.

I considered it a straightforward process and thought that would be the end of the matter.  That is until over time, more and more belongings were unpacked and we discovered his diaries.

My brother was a meticulous note taker and asides from the occasional lapse, a writer of regular diary entries.  He had notebooks that came back from Afghanistan, his various postings as well as journals from his London work life and school days. As soon as we discovered these, I realised we had assessed his digital memoires very differently from the ones he jotted down on paper.

He wrote several online notes and entries on his laptop, usually in note taking programs or in word documents. Initially I felt that we should avoid or wipe these, perhaps because in my mind they seemed off limits and were less structured. By comparison, it hadn’t occurred to me that we should destroy his penmanship.

The online entries fortunately survived and both laptop and handwritten entries remain mostly unread.  But a conundrum remains.

Currently I’m contemplating whether or not it’s okay to read a person’s private thoughts when they are gone regardless of where they are written.

Diaries are often read and published post-mortem. In an informal poll with friends and family, their response tends to be that it is a question of personal choice whether or not you read the inner thoughts of someone close when they’ve gone.

Not having spoken with him about his views on the matter and in the absence of any last wish guidance, my opinion wavers regularly. However, whatever the outcome, his thoughts from the laptop will have equal weight.

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