For the last few thousand years, death has been a very simple matter. Upon death, your assets would be divvied up according to your will. Historically, assets were almost entirely physical — cars, houses, antique tables, jewellery, gold bullion, notebooks, photo albums — but today that couldn’t be further from the truth. Facebook, PayPal, WoW characters, source code, emails, Dropbox — when you die, your entire digital estate will disappear into the ether.
Many online services have policies in place that deal with death very neatly. Yahoo, Ebay, Blizzard, and LinkedIn, for example, will close and delete your account if proof of death is provided. PayPal will close your account, and if there are any funds in the account it will issue a check to the name of the account holder. At no point will your executor gain access to these accounts or any private messages therein.
Things get slightly messier with Twitter, which will provide a copy of all your public tweets and then close your account. When you report a death to Facebook, the account is “memorialized,” which prevents anyone from ever logging in to the account but allows friends to continue commenting. In both cases, again, no one gains access to any sensitive data or private messages.
Google and Microsoft, on the other hand, will furnish your heir with full access to your Gmail, Hotmail, and Google+ account upon your death. Your executor will need to provide a lot of details, including an official death certificate, and the review process can take a while, but ultimately your family will gain access to your complete email inbox and outbox.
In my case, assuming I live to 80 and Google doesn’t fold, this will mean that my children get access to more than 50 years of email — hundreds of thousands of email containing passwords, private communications, and a whole array of sensitive documents.
It gets worse
Services like Facebook and Hotmail are no-brainers — but what about other, smaller, more clandestine operations? If you committed an awesome piece of code to the Linux kernel on GitHub, how will you transfer ownership to your next of kin? What about the images you upload to Imgur? Or your comments on Reddit?
Just for a moment, think about all of the online services that you’ve signed up for, past and present. Forums, games, social networks, cloud storage, blogs, dating sites — when you die, all of that data will be lost. Your WoW characters, your Steam games, your university essays stored on some obscure cloud storage service — gone.
And we’ve only discussed online services! What about the contents of your hard drive? Do they contain porn or other things that you’d rather your children didn’t see? Password protecting or encrypting your computer would seem wise in this case — but what if there are important files on your hard drive, such as bank details or your memoirs, that must be passed to your next of kin?
Are your documents/photos/videos organized in a sensible fashion? Have you told anyone where your backups are stored? Are there photos on your phone or tablet that need to be saved? Do you have any USB thumb drives or SD cards that need to be recovered?
In short, when you die, it will be such a pain in the ass for your family to track down and corral all of your assets that a lot of your digital legacy will probably be left to rot. Unless you make a digital will.
Dead man’s switch
I know it goes against every fiber of your being, but the only real way to make sure that your digital legacy remains in tact is to make a digital will. A digital will should include a list of all your login credentials — or at least the ones you want to share — and a layman’s description of all the data stored on your various devices. You should leave your digital will in a safe place, but it should not be part of your normal will, which will be made public after you die.
This doesn’t get around the problem of making sure no one gets access to your private documents and email, though. For that, the best solution is a dead man’s switch — a device that automatically triggers if you die. A dead man’s switch could scrub your hard drive of any sensitive data, and then email all of your passwords to your executor.
The problem with this approach, of course, is that you need to find a dead man’s switch that will outlive you. There are dozens of online services that will fire off posthumous emails — but most of them have been set up in just the last couple of years, and there’s absolutely no guarantee that these sites will still be around in 50 years when you die. Plus, do you really want to store the keys to your most valuable data on a single web service? These sites must be the ultimate honeypot for hackers, too. If you really want to use one of these sites, Parting Wishes is one of the oldest, and presumably one of the most reliable.
There are software solutions for wiping your hard drive if you don’t check in on a regular basis (i.e. you die), but it’s easier to just encrypt your hard drive with TrueCrypt — then, if you want your files to be accessed after death, just make sure you write your password down. It’s worth noting that TrueCrypt allows you to have multiple encrypted volumes, each one unlocked with a different password — so you can write down one password, but take the other volume to your grave.
Ultimately, though, the real issue is that digital property is not treated the same as physical property. Physical property is usually very well tracked, usually through documentation. Birth certificates, marriage certificates, credit agreements, vehicle registration papers — these all exist so that property, throughout its lifetime, can be easily tracked to its owner. When you die, a codified legal process makes sure that your will is executed. Death certificates are signed. Obituaries are written. Life insurance policies are paid out. Friends and family grieve.
Online, none of these formalized processes exist. When you die online, when your avatar passes on,nothing happens. This isn’t entirely surprising — after all, as far as Facebook is concerned, how can you programmatically differentiate death from a three-month sabbatical? — but it doesn’t mean that the situation can’t be improved.
Online services should implement their own, built-in dead man’s switches. If you don’t log into Facebook for three months, your account should be suspended; six months, and you’re memorialized. Gmail and Hotmail, instead of requiring a death certificate and lengthy review, could provide an “emergency contact” field that I could fill in — then, if the account goes inactive for a set period of time, the emergency contact would be sent a name and password. Perhaps I could flag one or two folders to be deleted before the emergency contact is given access, too.
Operating systems could have built-in dead switches, too. It would be easy for a desktop or laptop to initiate a self-destruct sequence if it isn’t turned on for three months. Likewise, when you set up a computer for the first time, it could ask you for an emergency contact. Modern OSes store the bulk of your data in the cloud — it would be very easy to give an emergency contact access to all of your documents and photos upon your death.
These changes need to be made sooner rather than later. It’s a morbid thought, but according to some estimates there are already millions of — literally — dead accounts on Facebook. It stands to reason that there are millions of dead Twitter, Flickr, and Match.com accounts, too. It will take many years, but unless digital death is taken seriously, the dead will eventually outstrip the living. Search will be cluttered with dead, unmaintained websites. Important documents and letters will remain forever buried in email accounts and cloud storage lockers. Digital photos that chronicle civilization’s most important achievements will be lost. Epic items in World of Warcraft will go unused. The world wide web will become the world wide graveyard.