Death in the Internet age: How to prepare for a digital afterlife

Whether for reasons of fear, faith or intrigue, humans have long pondered the possibilities of an afterlife. However, it's only recently that the concept of a post-death existence expanded to the Internet.
Written by Natalie Gagliordi, Contributor

Death is a haunting thought no matter what. But for those of us living blissfully in the Internet age of social networks and email accounts, mortality becomes even more terrifying when we tack on the fate of our digital existence.

Without the proper amount preparedness and clear-headed foresight, a digital life left forsaken might cause a lot of ... inconvenience.

Not only are there risks of fraud and identity theft with an unkempt digital afterlife, but there's also the possibility of exposing our darkest, digital secrets to unsuspecting (or overly curious) loved ones.

OK, maybe we don't all have secrets lurking in our various inboxes. But anyone hoping to maintain some degree of privacy after death needs to take action before the reaper comes knocking.

Google, Facebook, Twitter and other sites have various policies in place to deal with deceased users, so being aware of some of the options will help you maintain control over your information -- even from the grave.

Google: The company behind Gmail, YouTube and Google Plus has created a feature called "Inactive Account Manager," which allows users to decide the fate of their accounts once they are deceased or if the account becomes inactive for a long period of time.

The feature lets users choose to have their data deleted after three, six or 12 months of inactivity. It also gives the option of allowing a designated person to receive the data after a set period of time.

Before deleting data, Google will send a warning to a secondary email address or a phone number if one was provided. In instances of death, the warning can also be sent to a loved one.

Facebook: The social networking giant puts a lot of emphasis on user privacy, and this carries on even after a user dies. Facebook gives users the option to select a "legacy contact" to look after accounts, postmortem.

However, a loved one must request that an account be "memorialized" in the event of a death in order for the legacy contact option to take effect. Even then, no one will be able to log in or modify any settings, such as adding or removing friends or deleting content. Existing privacy settings will also carry over and cannot be changed.

The legacy contact can only write a pinned post, respond to friend requests and update the profile photo through a specific "manage" function. In addition, Facebook won't show a memorialized account in its "People You May Know" section nor will it send birthday reminders.

Twitter: The microblogging site expressly states that it will not provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased.

However, Twitter will deactivate an account if contacted by a family member or a person authorized to act on behalf of an estate. To do so, the person must present Twitter with a death certificate as well as a "brief description of the details that evidence this account belongs to the deceased," per company policy.

After 30 days, a deactivated Twitter account is permanently deleted. In some instances, Twitter says it may also remove images of deceased individuals that continue to circulate on the site.

Additional legal options: If account safeguards are not in place at the time of death, the issue of account access and data ownership turns into a legal matter -- and that can become really convoluted.

According to Hillery Nye, general counsel and chief privacy officer for location-based app maker Glympse, the best case scenario is when someone signs power of attorney (POA) over to a family member or estate executor and states specifically that the POA includes access to digital properties.

"This will allow them to take over or shut down those accounts, as they see fit, and prevent them from being misused," Nye said. "Without a power of attorney, your heirs will likely have to get a court order to gain this type of authority."

Nye noted if POA is not specifically applied to digital properties, then the trustee of an estate could potentially gain control over those accounts.

"In most cases, that's probably not what you want," Nye said.

So what happens if there is no estate plan or living will? The second best option is to choose a trusted friend or family member and supply them with access information to your various accounts and details on what to do with them.

"We keep telling people to protect their passwords, but in this situation you want to have one person in charge of your digital afterlife," said Ruth Carter, a social media attorney based in Phoenix. "You want to make sure someone has access to your passwords and can determine who gets the rights to your photos and other content you created."

For those who make absolutely no preparations for their digital afterlife, the fate of their assets could some day be decided by law. Increasingly, state legislators in the U.S. have been trying to enact policy to address the issue of digital account access after death.

The Uniform Law Commission (ULC), whose members are appointed by state governments to help standardize state laws, has been at the forefront of this issue.

For instance, last year the group endorsed a plan that would give loved ones access to -- although not control of -- the deceased's digital accounts, unless otherwise specified through a will.

But the proposal faced strong resistance from Internet service providers who cited concerns based on privacy, federal law and conflicts with terms of service agreements. After the push-back, the ULC revised its proposal, allowing Internet service providers to retain authority to determine how the digital assets are provided.

Yet as of now, only seven states have any type of legislation that deals with digital assets of the deceased. For privacy fans, that's a scary thought.

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