In 2011 an email from my brother showed up in my inbox.
It had no subject, and the message contained a single link.
During the next three weeks several such messages arrived, and I kept feeling frustrated and helpless.
Those emails arrived in April.
A month earlier, in March, my brother was killed when hit by a car.
Those emails weren’t written by him: his email account was hacked, and his entire contact list received a strain of spam messages, until it was flagged, and shut down.
When I took it upon myself to neatly and respectfully “fold” my brother’s digital life after him* – just like our family was doing with his physical life – I had no idea what I was getting myself into, nor, how difficult it would turn out to be.
Which is why I started writing about dying in this digital era: since I was introduced to the world of “Digital Death”, I’ve felt a strong need to introduce it to others - without them having to first lose a loved one.
“Digital Death” is a term to denote everything that happens – or doesn’t happen – to our digital data and devices, online accounts and virtual presence after we die.
Have you ever thought about how many digital accounts you have? The kind you log into with a user name and a password?
You probably have more “Personal Accounts” than you realize: this term refers to anything we log into online with a user name and a password: all the websites we ever signed up to.
A study from 2015 found that the average user had 90 such accounts, with the number predicted to double every five years.
Sounds like a lot, right? I know I was surprised when I checked the Password Manager I use: it currently holds my usernames and passwords to 253 online log-ins.
Assuming some are no longer relevant, several are duplicates and a few are just Wi-Fi accesses, that still leaves us with, what? – 150? 200?
Our digital space and devices now practically hold every aspect of our lives:
From life-long collections of music, movies, books, texts, videos, pictures, memories - through our banking records and the personal or professional documents and records for managing a house-hold or a business - all the way to our metadata.
Once we are gone, all of this is left behind.
It’s an unsolved problem, as in most cases we don’t know each other’s passwords – let alone all 90 or 253 of them - nor, what the wishes of the deceased were, as it was never discussed.
Most countries and states don’t have “Digital Death” regulations or laws yet, or if they do, they’re insufficient:
For example, the law might address only the deceased’s email accounts, as is the case in Rhode Island, or if it does address ALL of the deceased’s online accounts - it only lets you shut them down, as is the case in Nevada.
The British law might deem accessing someone else’s account as a criminal offence, and the American law (state or federal) might see it as a crime even if you were appointed by the deceased.
Further confusion comes with the differences in international law, as well as where you or your accounts are located in relation to the location of the servers.
The result is that most - if not all - of the dozens or hundreds of accounts each one of us leaves behind* become unreachable. This means not just the colossal digital loss we might experience - which could also lead to real financial loss – but also that these accounts remain out there: existing, floating, uncontrolled. People may continue to use, engage and interact with them - without our consent, knowledge or being able to do anything about it - possibly in ways neither the deceased nor we would want.
We are used to thinking of wills, legacies, heritage, bequeathing and planning ahead as relevant to older, wealthier people, but Digital Death is relevant to everybody: you don’t have to be rich in order to accumulate a vast digital world, and, in fact, the younger you are, the more online activity you’re likely to have*.
And digital loss is not just personal. It can be communal, cultural:
For instance: we nearly lost all the manuscripts of 36 year-old Iranian-American, international bestseller author, Marsha Mehran. She was found dead, alone, in Ireland, in 2014, and her father, Abbas, had to fight in order to retrieve her digital manuscripts from their cloud storage provider.
First steps in the right direction were made when two in-house services were launched: Google’s “Inactive Account Manager” in 2013 and Facebook’s “Legacy Contact” in 2015.
These let you leave certain instructions for your accounts in case of death.
But Google’s service doesn't let you share access to your accounts, and Facebook’s won’t let you pass access to your account, nor can you choose to not have your profile memorialized.
And I’m guessing most of you don’t know about these services, as both companies choose not to communicate them directly to their users.
On Facebook, once a person is reported as deceased – which can be reported by anyone, including complete strangers – that profile is "Memorialized”, with no prior warning. From that point onward, it is frozen and can no longer be accessed – even if you do have the right username and password, along with the deceased’s permission.
Google says in Certain Circumstances it may provide content from a deceased user's account.
Which circumstances? They don’t specify.
You might be thinking: "Hey, I’ll be dead! I don't care about some files or devices". You'd be right, of course. You won't care. But the people you love, and those who loved you, might care, for both sentimental and practical reasons.
You might prefer that your privacy be maintained after your death – sometimes especially from your loved ones. This is legitimate, important and should be respected.
I want to emphasize: I'm not saying the deceased don't have a right to privacy.
The thing is that there is no one right answer to suit all, therefore, it should be your decision, and not some company's customer relations' department's.
You should be given the choice - and the means - to decide the fate of your digital after-life.
I believe it’s time we started educating ourselves about this.
If you are a psychologist, lawyer, social worker, care giver, hospice staff, you should tell the dying people or bereaved families you’re working with, that there is one more thing they need to be aware of: “Digital Death”.
If you are in charge of people risking their lives in service: cops, soldiers, fire fighters: I believe they deserve to be told - before they leave their house the next time - that there is one more thing they should be aware of: “Digital Death”.
If you, as a person, as an individual, are already aware and concerned about Digital Death by this point:
I wish I could give you a solution. I can’t.
But there are a few things you can do:
- Think about all the devices and accounts you’re using: Is your computer password protected? Is there an unlock pin code on your Smartphone? Will someone be able to keep using your iPhone or iPad without your Apple ID? Will access or copies be needed of the important documents only you had and were kept in cloud storage, like taxes or mortgage? Should your online videos and pictures still be available? Think about it –– and make a decision.
- Whatever your choice is, whether you wish for some or all of your devices and accounts to be accessed or not, share your decision. Tell someone you trust, leave written instructions in a safe place where they could easily be found, sign up to a third-party or an in-house service that manages digital accounts - while remembering that new accounts get opened and passwords get changed - so relevant information needs to be updated regularly.
- Push to change current policies and laws. Make sure the voices of individual people and bereaved families are heard too - not just the voices of the lobbyists of the tech industry.
I’m not a businessperson, a salesperson or anyone’s agent.
I’m someone’s sister.
Picture by Colin Ritchie
He was 55 and a half years old when killed, on the spot, by a car, driven by a reckless driver, on March 2nd 2011.
When a loved one dies, there is so much pain, sorrow and hardship we can do nothing about.
Let’s at least do something to spare additional pain, sorrow and hardship, which we can do something about.
Please introduce this idea to as many people as possible, so they too will be aware of Digital Death - as you are now - without having to lose a loved one first.
* = What I forgot to say onstage.