While it isn’t always pleasant to think about our mortality, it does us no real good to ignore the reality of it. In fact, taking a practical approach to our end of life plans and funeral arrangements can be empowering.
Making personal decisions about distributing our assets, and how we would like our lives to be memorialized can give us a sense of personal peace, and also take some of the strain off of our loved ones.
However, one element that is often overlooked when considering plans for when we shuffle off this mortal coil, is our digital presence. You might scoff at the idea, but the fact of the matter is we spend a great deal of our time online, and as such most of us have built up a variety of social media accounts, digital assets, and left a trail of valuable data wherever we go.
So, how can we prepare for a safe and positive digital afterlife? How can we help our loved ones by limiting the legal and practical hurdles they might have to overcome once we pass away and leave our accounts for them to deal with? What are the risks, and how can we mitigate the potential for damage?
Digital End of Life Planning
I. Cybersecurity Protocols
Cybercrime is one of the key threats of our current climate. Hacking is a threat not just from the perspective of bank accounts, but also those who would seek to hold our private information and cloud-stored files to ransom.
We use a range of practices to keep safe while we’re online, but this threat doesn’t go away once we’ve passed on. Particularly for those of us who work in freelance or remote spaces, we are leaving valuable assets on storage and sharing platforms — these make up part of our bequest to those we have left behind and, to some extent, are part of our legacy.
As such, our end of life planning must include security protocols. If you have prepared a last will and testament with a lawyer, it’s obviously not practical to provide them with a hard list of all your various passwords — if you’re being safe online, these are likely to change frequently. Rather, start using a password manager such as 1Password or LastPass and provide your lawyer or executor with details of how to access this in the event of your death.
You should also be utilizing two-factor authentication on all accounts that offer this service. This involves a code being sent to your cell phone each time your log-in and password are used on an account — without this code, your account cannot be accessed. This can complicate matters when you die, particularly if your phone has become inaccessible.
Many platforms allow you to generate backup codes for use in an emergency, these can be stored on a password manager as detailed above, and passed on in the event of your death.
II. Digital Heirs and Memorialization
As online accounts and services have become a more prevalent part of our lives, developers have started to consider how these should exist after our deaths. As a result, there are various options available which allow our online presence to live on after we pass.
However, each of us uses different social media platforms for a range of purposes — a personal scrapbook, a portfolio for creative work, a networking platform — which means we must examine in what manner we want these to be treated in the event of our death.
This begins by choosing our digital heir. From a purely practical standpoint, it’s gotten easier to provide our digital heirs with the tools they need to take care of our online profiles after we pass on.
If you have a Google account, the Inactive Account Manager feature lets you choose up to 10 people who receive a notification if your account becomes inactive, and they’ll have access accordingly. You can also designate a legacy contact on Facebook, and Instagram allows the option to memorialize your account — in both cases, the recipients have limited ability to alter the contents after your death.
These functions are available to you, but it is important to be clear in communicating to your digital heir how you would like your posthumous digital accounts to be treated. If you would like them to keep posting material, connecting with followers, and noting key events, you need to set clear boundaries regarding how this should be done.
III. Data Protetion
Too often, we think of the finances we acquire, the property, or material goods as the valuable items we own. As our digital landscape develops, it has become clear that one of the most sought-after assets that we own is our data.
What we do, the topics we research, the services we use, our demographic profiles can all be used to inform the success of businesses and can be traded for anything from a pizza to cold hard cash. It is therefore important to treat our personal data as something that might be exploited, even after death.
It’s important to start asserting how you are happy for your data to be used right now, while you’re still living. There have been various ethical issues surrounding this subject, among them the government’s ability to access and use cell phone data in a way that amounts to unauthorized surveillance. A Supreme Court case — Carpenter vs The United States, argued in Nov 2017 and decided in Jun 2018 — found that accessing this type of data without permission or a warrant is unconstitutional.
When making a will, also make your digital heir aware of what circumstances you would agree to data on your phone or any other device to be accessed by law enforcement or any other company.
Facial recognition is also emerging as a popular tool for the state or private companies to identify people by cross-referencing images that are online and in the public domain. Software providers are harvesting social networks and search engines to build databases of faces that appear in photographs, then selling that data on without the owners having any input into how it is used.
Consider whether you want to undertake privacy measures for the pictures you took in life to be used for potentially unscrupulous purposes after your death.
We often consider our digital presence as being something that is a part of our lives, rather than important after our death. Your digital profiles and data have significant value, and as such, it is important to clearly communicate how you’d like your assets to be used.
Make arrangements to safely pass on passwords for your accounts, and carefully consider how your data can be protected from exploitation.