The Digital Estate and Your Digital Afterlife

Posted by in Musings




The advent of computers, the internet and other forms of digital media have undoubtedly changed society forever.  Now we can quickly access thousands of websites in almost the blink of an eye.  We can video chat with individuals across continents.  We can even place purchase orders by the click of a button and have that item shipped overnight.  Despite the obvious advantages of a digital world, there is a need for steps that need to be taken to keep up with the exponential growth of technology.

The first obvious legal action taken in direct response to the influence of the digital world is the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).  The DMCA was the US response to growing concern that with the digitization of information, it made it incredibly easy to steal copyrighted material.  Much concern arose out of such companies as Napster, a peer-to-peer sharing software company, that allowed users to share copyrighted songs without the consent of the music industry.  Eventually they faced legal action and paid hefty fines, but they were the first company that brought to the public eye the social influence of digital technology and, more importantly, the need for thorough scrutiny of the effects of digitalization.

I could continue ad nauseum about the societal effects of the digital era, however the purpose of this particular post is to focus on the individual and the influence of the digital media. In an interesting piece on NPR I recently heard, they brought up a concept I had never even heard about prior to the show–Digital Estate.  As the name implies, it refers to all the forms of digital media; whether they be your computer, your online accounts, or digital documents and emails; that can be treated as inheritable assets.

Since all your forms of digital media can be treated as such, the NPR piece focused a lot on one question–what’s happens to your digital estate after you die?  It brought up a lot of very interesting challenges, and offered potential solutions.  For example, everything on internet requires a password, so how do you access “locked” content once someone has passed away?  A Mashable article provides 7 resources that family, friends, and lawyers can use to access the information.   Some companies act as “digital locksmiths” that can “pick” their way into your accounts so that other can gain you information after you death…legally, of course.

This then raises ethical and moral questions.  What information should others be allowed access?  Understandably, bank account information may be pertinent for family members, but what about one’s personal emails?  And what about social media websites such as Facebook?  Should others leave your profile up indefintely as a “living” memorial or should it be taken down after a certain amount of time?

I asked this last question to my roommates, and it seems everyone’s visceral reaction is to take down one’s profile.  However, I’d have to disagree.  One’s Facebook profile is essentially one’s digital social identity.  It is a wonderful window into the life of the individual, and by keeping it up, it provides friends and family a continual memorial.  I recently had a high school friend pass away, and ever since his death, his closest friends have posted videos and pictures of his son to share his legacy with others.  And given that these posts will occasional come up on other’s News Feed, it reminds everyone of you were and what you have left behind.  In my mind, the only difference between that and looking through an old tin can full of pictures and this is the level of control you have to be reminded of the individual who passed away.    There is truth in the argument that sometimes it can be hard to be reminded of someone’s passing when not ready, but I believe the most important thing an individual can do for someone who has died is to remember them.  And there is no better way than through Facebook, where everyone who that individual has touched, at one point in their life, can pay tribute.

To go into more depth, I urge you to listen to the NPR piece, as they really address all aspects of one’s digital estate.  The one last thing they addressed that I wanted to bring up are the proactive steps can you take to insure your digital assets are dealt with properly.  One thing my Mom and I talked about was having a single, password protected source, that will grant access to me to her digital assets, just in case.  I suggested to her a program I use called 1Password, by Agile Web Solutions.  Although the purpose of their product is more geared towards everyday web login and password protection, having all you’re account information stored in 1Password could allow beneficiaries easy access to your estate, given they knew your one password. Other obvious steps, such as as creating a explicit will, can be taken as well to protect your digital estate.

I clearly have only skimmed the surface of all the considerations that can be taken, but it is nonetheless thought provoking.  So take care of your digital estate, because it tells as much about you as the clothes you wear.