Understanding Digital Death: Steps to Protect Yourself Online (Guest Post)

The following is a guest post from Will Eve of finder.com.au

There’s a growing awareness about the downside of living a life so intertwined with computers. First there was the the personal computer, an instrument that made work easier for so many occupations, but we did get up and walk away from it when our work was done. Even if we went back and used it again for recreational purposes most of us recognised the difference between reality and what our computers offered. The advent of the laptop brought us much closer to the digital age. We were now able to take our computers with us when we went outside of the office or home. The smaller note book made it easier again.

Our Physical Lives Are Now a Part of our Digital Lives

More recently we’ve seen a phenomenal increase in the use of the smartphone, which after all is really just a computer that you can hold in the palm of your hand. Then we were introduced to the iPad and tablet. All this development means our lives are becoming more and more involved with the digital world. All you need do is watch a crowd of people walking along a thoroughfare, relaxing in a park or attending a sporting event. A large proportion of them will have a mobile phone up to their ear. People travelling on trains and buses are commonly seen totally engaged with their laptops or smartphones. This has resulted in the following:

  • Online games and social interactions. The completion of a crossword puzzle in the daily newspaper or magazine has been replaced by people interacting with others anywhere in the world by playing scrabble and other like games on their computers. Social media has become the ‘in’ thing in all nations around the globe. Facebook and Twitter have untold millions of subscribers. We now do our banking online, we purchase items online, we sell things online, we get the latest local, national and world news online. In fact anything we don’t know we go online to get the answer. It all results in the fact that our whole live have been taken over and we now have a digital life that runs parallel to our physical lives.
  • What happens when we die? What happens to our digital life? The short answer is, nothing. It continues on as normal. We’re told that Facebook alone contains more than five million accounts belonging to people who have passed on. The mind only boggles at the number of other account throughout the world that remain active despite the persons, whose names they are in, being no longer with us.
  • The digital after life. Some people are referring to our online death after our physical death as being a digital afterlife and something that has to be attended to. Because so much of our private business is carried out online these days we all have to look at putting in place some sort of digital estate plan that will attend to these online accounts on our behalf when we can no longer do so ourselves. Some of the bigger search engines and social media sites are making attempts to help those left behind. Yahoo for instance will terminate an account on receipt of a death certificate. Twitter will archive all the tweets of a deceased account holder and pass them on to an appropriate survivor. However, there is a long way to go before the problem is solved completely.
  • One of the biggest problems is the necessity of having to protect our online IDs with user-names and passwords. Once you die your online ID lives on and will continue to do so if nobody can enter the program to close it down. This means all the family and holiday photos you have stored can no longer be accessed, Your emails accounts will continue. Even your PayPal account where you can have a lot of money stored that should rightfully go to your loved ones will remain on your PayPal account, theoretically forever.
  • You can make it much easier for your agent, or executor of your will, to get things sorted out for your loved ones benefit if you make an inventory of all the programs you have online. If you list every account you have, explain what it’s for and what you want done with it along with the relevant user-name and password, your agent, or executor, will then be able to enter the account and treat it as though it was either his or hers.
  • This brings up another question, that of the security of all this information. You won’t want all your online banking and other sensitive personal details kept where others can get access to it. You could save it all to a disk or flash drive and have it stored with your life insurance and disability policies. You could entrust it to a person whom you trust 100 percent but this would make it hard for you to change the passwords on a regular basis and if you were to die after you had changed the passwords but had not got around to altering the records on the disk or flash drive all your good intentions will have been for nothing.
  • To get over this problem there are a number of sites online that are dedicated to keeping passwords safe. These sites keep all your passwords and other vital information in storage where you can still access them at any time to change the details. Nobody else can gain entry to the site other than through a unique password. In this way all you need do is to have this password kept for your agent or executor and he or she can then go about what they have to do.