We are increasingly living our lives virtually via our computers, iPads and smartphones; in the way we communicate with friends, meet people, do our shopping, pay our bills, access our bank accounts and record our memories.
Technology has evolved at an enormous pace and so has the way we store information. Simple things such as photographs, which in the past we could have flicked through in a printed album, are now stored online.
We are encouraged to protect these digital activities with passwords and facial recognition apps.
But what happens to all of this when you die?
Early last year a young woman sadly died from an incurable disease. Like many people today she had extensively used Facebook, Twitter & several other social media websites both to communicate with friends, to store messages and photographs and more importantly to blog about her progressive illness. Following her tragic death her family wanted to access the pictures, messages and poems to keep and to remember her by.
Her sister managed with help from a computer geek to crack her password protected laptop to gain access.
However, using the dead girl’s passwords infringed some of those social media websites’ terms of service. It may also have been against the law. None of the companies allowed the family to retrieve her passwords. Their argument was that it would violate the girl’s privacy.
Since then, the family’s attempts to recover the girl’s online life have failed dismally. Some websites that previously logged in automatically on her laptop began locking as part of their normal security. Attempts to guess or reset passwords resulted in immediate locking after three failed attempts and some of the accounts have been shutting themselves down.
By November of last year she had completely disappeared from Facebook, along with all of her pictures and memories. Her family, having experienced the pain of her actual death are now experiencing the pain of her digital death.
The Law Society of England and Wales is urging us to leave a digital legacy after our death, by leaving instructions for our digital assets, just like you would include physical stuff in your will.
Worrying about social media accounts after we’re dead may seem trivial to some people but, to others, that carefully honed Facebook page and those precious tweets may be a gift for your loved ones. Facebook has recently updated its guidance on the question of what happens to a page after the owner’s death. The new guidance allows for the page to remain in the same state as if the person were still alive, including their privacy settings. There are even companies like Dead Social springing up who will take care of your social media accounts and even continue to tweet and post for you after your death. I guess, the modern equivalent of leaving letters for your loved ones to be opened at significant dates in their lives.
Of course, social media is only the tip of an ever expanding iceberg; what about your online banking accounts and savings? The money in them will go into the pot with any other bank accounts, but the problem is that whoever’s dealing with your assets might not even know they exist, and they’re not going to get a paper statement through the post to alert them to your digital stash. I recently received a letter from National Savings to ask if I want to be ‘paper free’ and simply record my premium bonds on line. You need to be aware of your online investments, keep a log of them, keep a schedule of what they are and where they are, so that whoever’s sorting things out afterwards is able to trace what’s in your estate, or they may be lost for ever.
Last May, for Dying Matters Awareness week, I produced a booklet called, ‘Five Things To Do Before I Die’ It has been hugely popular and is available, from Abbey Funeral Services, 173 High Street, Tonbridge, free of charge, Just send a large SAE and stamped envelope or call in to collect a copy. I plan, next year, to add a chapter on digital legacies because virtual banking, storage and communication are becoming so very much a part of our modern life. So much of our personal business is played out on line, utility accounts, TV and broadband accounts, kindle books and iTunes, online shopping accounts. The list is endless, so perhaps now is a good time to start making a record to keep with your will, and if you haven’t got a will – do that too.