Digital footprint lives on, even after we die

via Moak: Digital footprint lives on, clarionledger.com, 10/21/2015 and in print 10/22/2015.

PDF: Digital Footprint

This topic may be a little creepy, but it’s real and is becoming a discussion we need to have: Our “digital footprint” continues to linger, even after we die.

In perusing some of my LinkedIn connections the other day, I came across one which brought a chill: it was an account for a friend who I knew to have died several years ago. Of course, there was very little information there, and it would have been strange to see recent posts or updated content from him. Still, it was haunting to think this person continues to live on in some way in cyberspace. But it got me thinking; this must be really common.

So I began to search through contacts, Facebook and Twitter, and found a host of similar online specters. In some cases, there were recent posts from friends, expressing their condolences. In others, a loved one had vowed to carry on the person’s legacy by posting from the account.

Perhaps it’s an inevitable by-product of our connected world. With the myriad websites, apps and social media platforms that have accompanied the Internet explosion, we experiment a lot. We may hear about a new site or app, set up an account to try it, then move on when our interests go elsewhere. We have so many connections and interests that we don’t remember everything. Therefore, when our physical lives end, our digital presence hangs around like a ghost in an old horror flick who’s stuck and can’t “cross over.”

Of course, this notion of a lingering (nonsupernatural) presence is not really new; ask anyone who’s lost a loved one, and they will tell you about the mail that continues to come addressed to the person who has died — sometimes for years. People’s lives have always been full of interactions with other people and businesses, including things like bank accounts, contracts, subscriptions and inclusion in direct mail lists. But the amount of information “out there” today on most of us is unprecedented in human history. The trove now includes photos, videos, digital books and music, financial records stored in the cloud, and pretty much everything you did on social media. In some cases, it contains real threats.

Think about it for a minute: Unless you live your life “off the grid,” paying all your bills with cash, never establishing email or instant messaging, never interacting with anyone except face-to-face, it’s likely you have a digital footprint. And it could be valuable.According to security company McAfee, the average human being has about $35,000 worth of data stored in cyberspace.

So, what happens to all of this information after you die? Well, in most cases, nothing. It just sits there on some remote server, harmless and uninteresting unless it contains valuable personal or financial information. In other cases, it’s ripe fruit for people who want to commit fraud, steal and commit mayhem. Increasingly, digital thieves are able to crack through security and steal millions of records.

So, what to do? As we get older, our thoughts naturally begin to turn to preparing for our eventual death. We start thinking about wills and estate planning, shopping for burial plots and life insurance, and thinking about who’ll take care of the family cat. We start compiling a list of how our loved ones will access our bank accounts and legal documents.

These days, though, we also need to start including the various pieces of our digital presence. In a November 2014 article on CNET’s website called “The big sleep mode: preparing for your tech life after death”, author Claire Reilly noted that while the laws governing what happens to physical assets are pretty extensive, the law has not caught up with the rapidly evolving technology that surrounds us.

“The problem is that it is not as easy to transfer digital assets as it is tangible assets such as a car, house or shares,” Reilly quoted from Australian estate-planning official Ruth Pollard. “Without planning for death, there is a danger that the digital assets will become inaccessible or be destroyed when a person dies.”

So how do you even begin to make sense of the morass of websites, passwords and lists and make sure your legacy is protected? The answer is to start now. Here are a few tips, compiled from a number of sources:

  • Count your accounts. Make an inventory of your digital life, and write down the name of the site, its password and what it’s used for. Include banking, PayPal, email (even those you don’t use anymore), social media, blogs, gaming sites, and cloud storage. Think about where you store your digital photos, videos and music.Don’t attach this inventory to your will, because a will becomes a public document after your death.
  • Archive all your photos, music and online purchases, such as e-books. An external hard drive is a good investment if you have lots of files. (Keep in mind that the legal landscape governing ownership of music and other intellectual property is changing rapidly, and you may or may not be able to transfer your purchases legally; see this article from Marketwatch.)
  • Check your accounts to see what they say about what happens when you die. Some websites won’t address it, but for most sites, you can designate someone else to be the caretaker. For example, back in February, Facebook rolled out a new feature called Legacy Contacts, which allows you to designate a caretaker for your account, to request that the account be deleted when you die, or to make the account a memorial.
  • Consider deleting the account if you are not using it anymore. While you may not catch them all, cleaning up your digital footprint is a good idea in any case. Unused email accounts or social media profiles should be deleted or inactivated.
  • Get help. You may want your executor to be the one to handle all this; maybe not. In any case, whomever you choose should share your interests in protecting your identity and legacy and have the technological savvy to — for example — know where your treasured family photos are kept. There are services that can help do all these things, but it can be costly. A list of services can be found in multiple sites such as thedigitalbeyond.com.
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