Passing on in a digital age

posted in: Social innovation | 0
Creepy man with glowing eyes.

An area of change that is often forgotten about is the period at the end of our lives. At some point, we will all inevitably experience bereavement within our family. There is a tangible social impact caused by the friction we experience in ensuring that the survivors of the deceased loved one can access all the information and assets they need to smoothly carry on their day-to-day life. Furthermore, the archives of digital files and photos may have a great deal of emotional value to our surviving family and having access to this can assist with the grieving process.

It is now more and more common for individuals to have an online presence which entails not only social network sites and e-mail accounts but also online bank accounts, online investment accounts, storing of data such as photographs and music in cloud services and many more. Have you reflected on what will happen to all of this data once you pass away?

“If you have a Twitter account, your family may want it deactivated and – if you have left clear instructions – it will be easier for your executors to have it closed. If you have an online bank account, your executors will be able to close it down and claim the money on behalf of your estate.” [1]

A specific worry is for those who have online banking without paper declarations, causing no tangible confirmation that exists of the account. How are your personal counsels going to tell what assets you have when they are unable to find any physical evidence?

A lot of of these digital assets will not have any perceptible value; though there might be standing balances on Paypal Accounts, generosity made over consistent use of eBay, balances on gambling sites or prized online gaming characters that can be sold for cash. If a person does not contemplate on these things when creating their will then they could easliy go undiscovered after the person passes away – this will in turn result in the digital asset being lost and the a lot of valuable data or information along with it that could have been useful.

What can you do about it?

It is sensible to compose a list of all of your online profiles, accounts and investments, along with account passes and passwords that you can store in a safe place. This list can be kept safely in the same envelope as your will that is only permissible to be opened after you pass away.

If you however give this information to your solicitor as a part of your actual will, he is not bound by any confidentiality clause and eventually, the will is going to be made public. So make sure you take note of that. You obviously do not want any of your private information accessible to the public. A digital legacy vault is a new class of software tools that help you keep all this information safe and secure to be handed on to your loved ones when you die.

“The universe of digital assets is vast, including email accounts, picture and video storage sites, social networking sites, domain names, games and related sites; professional sites and backups; as well as online banking and business accounts. Moreover, digital assets go beyond online accounts to include your own personal or work computers, their hardware and software. If your clients are smart about their digital life, then they have numerous usernames, passwords, and security questions for their accounts.” [2]

What about social networking profiles and e-mail?

Social networking sites and e-mails contain a lot of personal data and most of them are of value to the owner. A choice which a person must make when making a will is what they want to become of their emails and social media profiles after they pass away. Who takes over it? Who can access it? Do you want it permanently deleted? The choice is entirely up to you. If you think that some of your online data might be of significant value to your loved ones in the future, then make one of them your beneficiary.

In terms of email, again the owner of the account must choose what they would like to happen to their e-mail account once they pass away. Some people may want to allow their loved ones to gain access to their e-mail as reading old letters can bring back great memories of the deceased. On the other hand, some people might prefer to have their e-mail accounts deleted due to privacy concerns or simply not wanting certain parts of their life revealed to others.

“A huge amount of valuable information is being created, stored, processed, and communicated using computers and computer-based systems and networks.” [3]

What is clear is in our increasingly digital lives; our traditional assets are migrating into digitally managed ones. This necessitates a rethink on how we ensure that these are handed on to our loved ones when we die. This is one area of social change where we can use a little planning to make the transition a smoother one.

Angel Alerts is a Cambridge, UK-based company that has written software to help individuals manage their digital assets while they are alive and ensure they are handed on to their loved ones along with their instructions when they pass on. Founded by Cambridge University alumni Dinan Gunawardena and colleague Paul Cook at the Idea Transform event at Cambridge Judge Business School, Angel Alerts was supported by our Cambridge Social Ventures programme in 2014-15.

Image credit

Digital Design: Light Painting.
Credit: Photo by Vancouver Film School

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Digital Design: Light Painting. Credit: Photo by Vancouver Film School. This work is licensed under a Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)


[1] LawSociety (2014) “Leave a digital legacy after your death, urges Law Society”
[2] Beyer, G.W. and Cahn, N. (2014) “When you pass on, don’t leave the passwords behind: planning for digital assets”, Probate & Property, 26(1), p.40.
[3] Randall K. Nichols (2000) “Defending your digital assets against hackers, crackers, spies, and thieves”, McGraw-Hill Companies.

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