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Inside my Brother's Personal Computer

Ynet: Death on the Internet

Digital Death: Inside My Brother's Personal Computer
A few days after her brother was killed in a traffic accident, Vered received a mail from him. That is, not from him but from the spammers who had taken over his account. The attempt to gain control of his account became a journey tracing Facebook profiles of the deceased; people who live on in the internet after they die; and the things we leave behind us on the web when we pass on to the next world. First article in a series
Published: July 15, 2011, 18:18

The people closest to us don't necessarily let us into their computer when they let us into their home. Even those we give a copy of our house key won't necessarily get the password to access our computer, or our email account, or our Facebook profile. The computer (there are those who still call it "the Personal Computer") has become our most intimate place: this is where we hide anything that is really personal.

In the past the death of a loved one involved 'only' painfully dealing with material assets. Today death requires other painful confrontations, related to the stuff remaining on that personal computer.

I found this out firsthand when my brother, Tal Shavit, was killed on March 2, 2011. I took it upon myself to go over his computer before it was handed over to his children and I found myself assailed with doubts. On the one hand, it was clear to me that my brother's kids would want utmost access to the content that their father left behind. On the other hand, it was equally clear to me that everyone is entitled to privacy and to have their life tidied up in a respectful manner.

It took a long time until I could enter his computer, and much more time passed from the moment I began until the moment I finished. My brother had set up a new site, Doogri, at the end of last year; Arik Rosenblum, the site administrator, knew my brother had updated the site an hour before he was killed. I knew that when I turned on the screen I would see the screen as my brother had seen it, moments before his death.

Initially the computer and screen were in my apartment, not even set up. Later, I set them up but was still unable to go in. I felt that I was about to enter the 'holy of holies', the most personal place. When I was done, I noticed there had been no comfort in this task, unlike touching his personal belongings, such as putting my hand in his coat pocket. Here there was only relief: the unpleasant task was over. 

But that wasn't the end: a few days after he was killed, we all received an email from Tal.

At least, that's how it seemed: a new message appeared in our inboxes, the name of the sender was his name, and the address from which it was sent was one of the addresses he used. That's how we discovered his Yahoo! account had been hacked and used to send out spam. It isn't pleasant to have hostile elements take control of your account while you're alive, but after you die it becomes unpleasant to many other people.

I tried to go into his Yahoo! account and change the password in order to take back control of his account, hoping it still contained some of his original content. Yahoo! replied that I needed to contact their customer service. 

I wrote to them as though I was Tal, from one of his other email addresses, to which fortunately we still have the password and access. The last mail I received from Yahoo!, on June 13th, stated that due to an unusually large number of requests, they would answer within 24 hours. I haven't heard from them since.

Chaya and 'Hevreh'

I imagined I wasn't the first who had to deal with online profiles of family members who had passed away. Through the 'Yad Haniktafim' association, supporting families who lost loved ones in traffic accidents, I found Chaya, a bereaved mother, whose 21-year-old daughter was killed nine years ago.

"There was no Facebook back then, there was only 'Hevreh'", Chaya told me. A few months after her daughter was killed, Chaya tried to enter the account. But the account had been blocked.  "On the one hand, I felt as though I was being kept from reaching another part of her. I wanted to have every detail that was left of her. Anything she was connected with or had been involved in, I also wanted to connect with and be involved in. On the other hand, I felt that normally, if my daughter were still alive, I wouldn't dare violate her privacy in this way and enter her account. Maybe I would be exposed to things she didn't want me to know? So I say that if that's how it is, maybe its better that way. Maybe I don't really have to go into her account there. 

"Since she was killed, I write her name in Google, to see what comes up. I want to read every word she wrote or that was written about her. That's how I saw that a friend of hers had written in her high-school message-board that she'd been killed.  But she was 21 when she was killed, and the writers in the message-board were younger than her and didn't know her. Her name didn't say much to them, there was little reference to it, and it hurt me. It demonstrated to me how the world continues on. My heart contracted."

Lior Weitz, administrator of the 'Hevreh' site, do you receive requests following the death of your clients?

"The most common requests are requests from families and friends to add 'R.I.P.' to the name of someone who passed away. This is a request that the site categorically refuses. Additional requests are to close the accounts after death. These are requests that the site always complies with".

Do you have a policy for dealing with bereaved families who would like to enter the account of someone who has passed away?

"We don't have a clear-cut policy and we have almost never encountered such a request so far. I guess that the answer would be positive but we will check each case individually: on the one hand it is very important to us to respect the deceased and their privacy, on the other hand, for the family this could be a precious memory. I find it hard to believe that we have information that is important to keep safe on the site – usually, the communication here tends not to be of the intimate kind."

Following a request from Ynet, 'Hevreh' agreed to allow Chaya access to her daughter's profile. It isn't clear if Chaya will make use of this access.


I was already experienced when I entered my brother's Facebook profile. The first thing I did was make sure he appeared as 'Off' in chat.

In the next article in the series: the decorated soldier whose family sued for access to his email account; and about N. and A. who have already prepared their computers for life after their death.

Thank you Rachel (Berman) Madar for translating these articles. 

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