Legacy Tips #5-9: 5 ways to make sure your digital life is not locked up online (podcast)

facebook_digital_afterlife_what_happens_when_someone_diesAway For A Bit spoke with Damien Carrick on ABC Radio National on legal and practical considerations for managing a digital afterlife and legacy.

Gaining access to an individual’s online accounts (social networking, email) after they die is often impossible, although in some cases, next of kin have fought for access via the courts. As the podcast demonstrates, they do not always win.

Here are five recommendations from the podcast to avoid your digital life from being locked up online.

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Legacy Tip #2: Register online accounts with personal email address & keep contact details updated

protect_legacy_email_social_online_accountsFor personal online services such as for banking and financial, registrations to social media accounts such as Facebook and LinkedIn or other entertainment/lifestyle memberships where digital assets may be stored (i.e. your Apple account with iPhoto or iCloud), always use a personal email address for the sign-up process as opposed to a company email address or someone else’s contact details.

It’s a practical and basic rule but it means that you keep control over the sign in process as well as management of the account and the data it contains.

Why?

If a person leaves a place of employment and their work email is associated with their online services, they may have access issues later.

When someone leaves a company suddenly (i.e. in the case of redundancy), it’s likely that the business will cancel the email address if not immediately, then very quickly for security reasons.

In the event that an employee is working through a notice period before leaving the company, there’s still a chance that updating social media and online registration details with a personal email address may be forgotten with the distraction of other handover tasks.

This generally means that when that person leaves the company, they won’t have access to the email account for any correspondence from online subscription services but more importantly, they are unable to reset usernames and passwords for online services that rely on email, as well as a response to the emails they send, to identify an account holder.

Next of kin will have issues accessing a deceased person’s accounts if they are associated with a work email address. 

Even the most sympathetic companies will not (or in any event are extremely unlikely) to allow next of kin to access the deceased’s email account for privacy and security reasons.

Whether or not next of kin or close family and/or friends have access to the deceased’s usernames and passwords, if the accounts they are trying to enter are associated with a work email, they still won’t be able to access those services that rely on email and responses from the account holder’s email to confirm access rights.

Using an online service set up with another person’s details can lead to access issues and complications down the line.

Say a couple shares a household service which has only been set up in one person’s name. Should the person that registered for the subscription die, their partner may no longer be able to access the account. This is for the reason cited before — that digital services often verify access rights through email — but similarly, functions that we often take for granted these days such as ‘remember this password’ on devices means that the person who survived the deceased may not know relevant passwords either.

For shared household services, it’s wise to set these up using an email account that everyone within the household can access and document relevant passwords so that if the person who registered the account(s) leaves, it does not automatically result in discontinuation of the service.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that when someone registers for an online account, they are the one to accept terms and conditions as well as responsibility for it — including associated fees — even if the service is predominantly used by someone else.

As an example, if a son or daughter bought a mobile phone account or online media subscription for a parent but signed up for it under their own name, they would be liable for ongoing payments in the event their parent died during the fixed term contract period.

How to capture email, text and chat conversations from a screen

mobile burst applicationsRecently I wrote that when going through and organising DB’s effects after his death, I came across a printed copy of our first email conversation that he had hoarded away with other paperwork. My messages had been sent from an email account that I had forgotten about and hadn’t used for over ten years. When I decided to log into the account again to reclaim our old correspondence, I realised that the company had since been acquired twice, renamed and that my membership no longer existed. Later conversations were lost. At the time, it was heart wrenching.

So I’ve been on a mission to avoid the same situation happening again, looking into apps and services that exist to help people capture correspondence via text, chat and email.

You can get email, phone, text and chat management systems that archive and back up all correspondence (particularly useful for business or for legal purposes) but the options below are for capturing specific conversations you want to keep as memories. They are mostly straightforward and also eye catching.

Surprisingly, there seem to be relatively few options out there but here some that I’ve discovered with costs ranging from free to those sitting on the higher side of the price spectrum. If you are aware of others that you can share, please post below. I’d love to hear about them.

A heads up. These services do not work if you are trying to capture conversations with someone who has a memorialised Facebook account (what is Facebook memorialisation?). Memorialised accounts do not show up in the search functions of the services below integrating Facebook, I suspect because Facebook does not provide access. As a result, it’s not possible to download the conversations you’ve had with deceased Facebook members whose pages are memorialised, even if you’re trying to do so from your own account.

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

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

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