Dying online

When you die, your online life can continue on for years

Yesterday, I got a LinkedIn connection suggestion about a former co-worker. Happens all the time. The only thing that was different about this one was that he had died about five years ago. Ow. It was a strange moment.

It's a sort of moment I may have to get used to. While we continue to shuffle off this mortal coil as often as ever -- no gets out of life alive -- our online footprints remain behind us. Sometimes, though, as with LinkedIn, these reminders of mortality catch me by surprise. It's a surprise I could do without.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the social networks have any mechanisms in place to deal with the death of their members. There is no way for Facebook to set my status to Dead. And, given the recent eruption of fake death reports on Twitter, that's a good thing.

So, what can you do about this? Well, I recommend acceptance. If you see death coming sooner rather than later, you can do what intellectual and writer Christopher Hitchens has done and tell the world. But you don't need to be famous author to do this. A fellow technology writer friend of mine, Chris Gulker, has told the world of what he calls "the final upgrade" in his own blog. I admire their courage.

There are other ways to bid the online world adieu. For example, have you ever considered what will happen to your e-mail and online bank accounts when the one person -- you -- who knows their passwords disappears? You should. If your friends and family you leave behind you are to clean up your affairs afterwards, they'll need access.

The easiest, and safest, way to handle this is to simply write out your account information on paper and put it with your other important documents in a safety deposit box. Yes, it's as low-tech as it gets, but if you keep your account IDs and passwords on your PC or online, they're both more vulnerable to hackers and harder to get at for your relatives.

If you don't take this precaution, your loved ones will find it very hard to get access to your online accounts. Gmail, for example, requires a survivor, even your spouse, to send it a paper copy of your death certificate and a power of attorney document. Yahoo Mail goes even further. Your ownership of your mail, or any information or documents you've placed on a Yahoo service, reverts to Yahoo. In legal terms you have no right of survivorship over your Yahoo accounts. If your survivors want to get to your Yahoo accounts, they'll need to obtain a court order and subpoena. And if you think that's bad, just wait until you're no longer around and someone tries to get into your eBay or PayPal account!

In short, getting access to almost all online e-mail systems and services after you're gone will prove a tremendous pain, unless you've left your log-in IDs and passwords behind. Even then, this might turn into be a bit of a mess legally, since the executors of your estate are usually required to inform everyone with whom you had a financial relationship that you've gone to join the choir invisible, and the online companies might lock the accounts down in the meantime.

And, then, of course, there's the problem of just letting people know that you're no longer with us. Sure, those you're closest to will know, but what about your buddies from college or your online co-workers who know you best through a social network or e-mail? Well, there are Web sites for that. These sites, like Letter from Beyond and It's My Life, enable you to set up e-mails to be sent to the people you choose in the event of your death.

Finally, you need to consider what you want done with your online tracks. My wife, for example, once all the legal details are taken care of, wants me to delete all her PC and online records. I, on the other hand, would like to see my online musings stick around until link rot destroys them. You need to decide what you want done with your records and let your people know. Otherwise, you'll have no control at all over your Internet legacy.

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been writing about technology and the business of technology since CP/M-80 was cutting-edge and 300bit/sec. was a fast Internet connection -- and we liked it! He can be reached at sjvn@vna1.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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