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What Shall We Leave Behind?

I interviewed Yoav Silberstein, founder and CEO of Tic Tac Data Recovery, specializing in computer data recovery and salvaging services, to hear from him of real cases in which relatives of the deceased wanted to recover information lost with their loved one’s death:

“I estimate that close to 4,000 of our annual personal cases are a consequence of information loss due to death, mostly digital remains of the deceased.

Photo source: Tic Tac
One of the most moving cases we had was with the family of Lieutenant Nir Lakrif, who died in a helicopter crash - training accident - in 2010 in Romania. The family reached out to us in order to restore a memory card from his camera which crashed with him. In this case, the family felt as if they suddenly received a photographed greeting from him, eight months after his death. In addition to appeals such as this one, as can be seen in the Channel 2 News report (in Hebrew) for the restoration of a camera and a memory card that crashed in an aircraft, we receive, for example, requests to restore damaged laptops which crashed in cars with their owners. 
People turn to us for financial as well as emotional reasons. 
A widow came to us after her husband’s cardiac arrest. He managed their business and she had no idea who was indebted to them and who they were in debt to. She experienced a combination of helplessness coupled with a total dependence on an object she could not access due to her husband’s use of encryption on his computer.
There was a cell phone from The Carmel Disaster that was brought to us for restoration after it had been burnt. We were able to access a number of pictures that delighted and moved the phone owner’s loved ones because they did not exist anywhere else outside that burnt phone:

"Images from the cell phone burnt in the Carmel"
"The last souvenir"
"The late Ayala Ifrah’s phone, victim of The Carmel Disaster, was found on site | Only now, one year and seven months later, experts were able to restore the last photographs she took | Her mother: 'This is the phone Ayala used to call for help'"

We were able to restore the hard drive belonging to the Holtzberg couple who died in Mumbai in 2008, after it had been shot during the attack that killed them. As we can see in the Channel 2 News report (in Hebrew), for their relatives, the memories left in the pictures and videos that we restored were significant and moving.  
There are people who are happy when we are able to restore anything from their murdered child’s computer for example, so that they have it as a memento. Others break down when we are unable to restore everything. There are cases in which people are happy even with low quality restored images, because they feel as if they are able to “get into his/her head”, and some people break down and cry when restoration is not possible and describe their feeling as if their world has been destroyed.

Photo source: Tic Tac

Sometimes people with very sad stories come to us, and they don’t have the necessary technological knowledge to understand that unfortunately we can’t help them: when a computer/tablet is stolen or disappears and we are asked to restore what was there, we have to explain that is not how it works, that without the device we have no way of restoring information. 
I can’t emphasize enough how critical it is to back up data. That way, even if the computer is stolen or destroyed, we have a chance to restore at least some of the things. 
Usually the sentence we hear from relatives are: ‘it’s very important to me’, ‘it’s an important souvenir’, ‘his/her texts are a treasure for me’, ‘I need this memory’, ’these are my souvenirs from him/her’. People who want keepsakes from murdered children come in a very emotional state and break down right here in the laboratory. Sometimes there are problems around complicated family situations: there were pictures of the child on the computer of one of the parents, and they are divorced - a disaster has struck and now the other parent wants the child’s pictures that were on the computer”.

All the cases described here are all true and touching but they are the minority. How many of us know someone who:
Died and their laptop crashed with them in the car and needed restoration?
Died and their camera crashed with them in the aircraft and a memory card needed restoring?
Died in a shooting and a bullet penetrated the computer resulting in a professional hard drive restoration in a laboratory?
Of course these cases exist and are awful, but they are not the majority.

On the other hand, we all know people who die, all the time, of various ages and circumstances, just because that’s the way it is.
And almost everyone nowadays has online accounts that are portals to rich digital and virtual worlds that they leave behind.
As we saw in the examples Yoav gave and as you can see from numerous examples from Israel and the world here, digital content that people leave behind after their death, especially writings and pictures, could be priceless to their loved ones – and/or of an actual monetary value.

As can be seen in a story on PBS in the USA in July 2014, it is also not age dependent. When his 73 year-old mother died, her son knew she had two accounts – twitter and Yahoo. After 20 hours of searching, he found she had 13 online accounts.

Based on information published by Experian in 2012:
“The average Briton now has 26 different online accounts with 25-34-year olds being the most prolific, with no fewer than 40.1
I assume that the average Israeli internet user has tens of accounts.
If the laboratory receives a few thousand physical digital restoration cases, I assume online restoration cases are more numerous, only this type of information has not been collected yet.

If people burst out crying and have a hard time dealing with the loss of pictures and texts of loved ones that were stored in a physical location, I assume people will have a similar reaction to the loss of pictures and texts of loved ones stored in a cloud, and there are many examples here.
If the computer/phone/tablet has limited space for texts/pictures, then our online accounts have much larger quantities stored in it:  huge amounts, almost unlimited. Which means the potential loss here is much larger because in most cases, people do not leave a detailed list of the accounts they hold along with lists of their usernames and passwords.

If you know your privacy is important to you after your death and you would not like your accounts accessed posthumously – some or all of them – that’s fine. It’s a legitimate wish and should be respected. Just leave instructions to this effect.
In most cases, this is not the case: people do not leave this information behind simply because they don’t think about it. Here is another example from a 2013 TV report in the USA:

Sad update 31/7/14:
Screenshot from Lilah Argaman’s Facebook profile, sister of Liad Lavi who was killed in Operation “Protective Edge”, illustrates exactly what I am talking about:

"The brothers connected Liad’s cell phone hard drive and we found a treasure. Thank you"

"What Shall We Leave Behind?" was first published in the Hebrew version of the blog in July 2014. I thank Gali Halpern Wienerman from the bottom of my heart for volunteering to translate it to English. I simply can't do everything by myself. If you wish to assist as well, here is how you can help too

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