Many of us now value our social media accounts as 'treasured possessions' and are passing on the legacy of our digital information in our wills. Richard MacKichan investigates
“Your house is on fire,” begins the age-old conundrum; “What would you rescue?” Assuming partner/children/pet/lodger/flatmate is a given for all but the most heartless, the answer has typically been something along the lines of: photo albums, home movies, books, record collections, precious art, important documents, etc.
Now the answer is much simpler: the computer, the modern-day home of all of the above. But what happens to all these digital treasures when we go up in smoke?
People pass on things they would have valued traditionally but that have now taken digital form: photographs, home videos, books and music
Last year, a survey showed that the average Brit amasses £200 worth of music, film and other downloads, worth a current total of £2.3 billion (not to mention the hours spent downloading and uploading it all). More and more of us are now leaving internet passwords and digital assets in our wills.
Facebook, Hotmail, Flickr, iCloud: “Treasured possessions”
The research was carried out by the Centre for Creative & Social Technologies (CAST) at Goldsmiths University of London and commissioned by hosting company Rackspace. More than half (53 per cent) of the 2,000 adults polled held “treasured possessions” in cloud services such as Facebook, Hotmail, Flickr and iCloud, with 11 per cent admitting to including, or planning to include, passwords in bequests to their heirs.
Chris Brauer, CAST co-director, explains: “People pass on things they would have valued traditionally but that have now taken digital form: photographs, home videos, books and music. Some people pass on a list of log-ins to their accounts.
“Not everyone, though, wants their heirs having access to private communications and thoughts, and some opt instead for a specific filtered set of things they value and believe their heirs will value.
“Lawyers are driving a lot of the early adoption of digital inheritance practices by raising the issue with clients when drawing up or updating wills. Often people simply wouldn’t have thought about it but suddenly realise that, yes, there are digital objects or accounts they value and want to pass on.”
Accessibility vs security
The idea of a digital inheritance itself may be new, but as Wired columnist Daniel Nye Griffiths says: “The internet has the same issues any other repository – the balance of accessibility and security. That is, if you give your wife the keys to the safety deposit box for when you die, you run the risk that she will use the safety deposit box key during your lifetime and find out about your second wife in Derby. And vice versa.”
Naturally, entrepreneurial sorts have spotted the potential here and specialist digital legacy services such as Legacy Locker and the crudely-named iCroak (now repackaged as Cirrus Legacy) have sprung up in what is sure to become a busier marketplace. They play on the fear that passwords included in regular wills can be accessed by all manner of secretaries, admin staff, witnesses and lawyers.
Keeping passwords safe
Griffiths advises treading carefully. “I would be cautious of putting all my passwords in one place online,” he says. “You can’t review the security in place personally, and a repository of, say, people’s bank IDs would be an incredibly tempting target for hackers.”
These days we have more online accounts than ever before, and what to do with them post-mortem raises some interesting questions. Some automatically close after periods of inactivity. But what about email and social media, things we use on a daily basis?
Following the tragic Virginia Tech shootings, Facebook introduced a memorial state for profiles of the deceased in which status updates and any group links are removed, leaving the user’s confirmed friends to use their wall to post condolences and memories. An account will be removed altogether if Facebook receives a request from next of kin.
Most major web-based email providers will do the same if provided with proof of death and other paperwork.
Twitter, however, is less forthcoming, with no apparent guidelines of what to do. But if you gain access to the deceased’s email, you may be able to find log-in details in order to delete or preserve the account.
Our entire music and photo collections online
We are only just beginning to think about passing on such digital keepsakes, but according to Brauer it is going to “explode in the public consciousness”. The CAST study suggests that by 2020, a third of us will keep all of our music online, a quarter of us will store our entire photo collection online, and one in seven of us will own only e-books, not printed.
The rise of s[edition], where original work from some leading artists can be bought as digital-only versions, suggests more three-dimensional cultural pursuits will also look to find a home online.
If that all sounds like a bleak, dystopian future, void of physical artefacts, rest assured. In summary of his study, Chris Brauer says, quite rationally: “There will probably always be a combination of physical and digital objects among our valuables, but they are moving to a kind of equivalency in popular culture where we don’t differentiate value based on physicality or virtuality.”
Which, with any luck, should value our own online offering somewhere in the region of several diamond-encrusted Damien Hirst skulls. Now, who to leave those passwords to…