[LINK] 'Please log on to demonstrate you're still alive'

Roger Clarke Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au
Thu Jan 28 05:49:09 AEDT 2010

[Among other tidbits:  Google, will unlock e-mail, video, photo and 
shopping accounts if family members have a death certificate and a 
previous e-mail sent to them by the departed]

Web sites let online lives outlast the dearly departed
Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post

Heather Pierce lives in Glover Park, but much of her life floats in the cloud.

Her e-mail is stored in that vast digital space, bouncing between 
Yahoo server farms. Her bank statements reside there, too, along with 
her mortgage payments, credit card files, movie rental account, 
library book list, home videos and hundreds of photos -- on 
Shutterfly, Facebook and her blog. She has only a few hard-copy 
photos of her 17-month-old daughter.

If Pierce's house caught fire, what would she dash in to save? Not 
much, probably. "All of that important stuff is online now," she 
said. "That's where our lives are."

Which is why Pierce, 38, recently paid $29.99 to sign up for a year's 
access to yet another account in the cloud -- one that stores all her 
passwords and log-in information and, when the worst happens, will be 
accessible to whomever she designates as digital executor. On its Web 
site, under serene pictures of clouds against a deep blue sky, the 
company calls its service "a digital safety deposit box."

Pierce's backup service, San Francisco-based Legacy Locker, is one of 
a dozen businesses that have sprung up to help denizens of the 
digital world grapple with the thorny issues raised after your 
physical being leaves behind only its virtual reality. Internet 
experts and estate planners say a cybercrisis is brewing because 
popular Internet services have policies that, barring an order from a 
court, forbid accessing or transferring accounts -- including 
recovering money -- unless someone has the password.

The legal fog affects not only personal lives -- the photo site 
Flickr has 40 million members -- but also millions of business 
accounts on such sites as eBay and PayPal and the virtual community 
of Second Life, which generated $55 million of real money for users 
last year. Despite our increasing reliance on cloud computing -- 
storing all sorts of data online through Web applications -- very few 
Internet users have begun to think about what happens to all that 
data should we get hit by a bus.

"We haven't truly seen the breadth of this issue play out yet, but 
I'm telling you, this is a huge problem," said Chicago lawyer Karin 
C. Prangley, who has spoken on the topic at conferences. "Ten or 15 
years ago, someone could go into your house and find the paper trail 
if you die. Now the paper trail is online."

Beyond-the-grave e-mails

Naturally, so are the proposed solutions. The dot-coms occupying the 
new digital beyond run the gamut from pure password-storage sites 
like Legacy Locker -- a competitor in Switzerland promises a "Swiss 
bank" for assets -- to such start-ups as Bcelebrated.com, which helps 
users create online memorials that go live after they die and e-mails 
to be sent from the grave. It is now possible to essentially hit 
"send," from six feet under, on an e-mail confessing to chopping down 
the cherry tree.

But the e-mails also serve another purpose, particularly as 
relationships stretch as wide as the cloud that nurtures them. The 
traditional rites and legal procedures that follow death are geared 
to friends and family in the physical world, but businesses are 
cropping up to also serve the new universe of friends, those on chat 
boards or on Facebook. How will, say, 700 of your Twitter followers 
find out about your death if you can't log in to tell them?

"Back in the day, we never moved far from home, and people could read 
about our deaths in the obit column," said Debra Joy, founder of 
Bcelebrated.com. "But now we move around, we have friends around the 
world that we connect with on the Internet. We need to reach them 

Are you 'still alive'?

The new sites, with such names as DataInherit, Entrustet, Parting 
Wishes, VitalLock, My Last Email and If I Die, deliver the bad news 
in novel ways. With Deathswitch.com, if users don't respond to 
regular e-mails to confirm that they are still alive, the site gets 
increasingly worried about them, sending notes that nearly beg for a 
reply: "Please log on using the link below to demonstrate that you 
are still alive." If users don't respond within a set period of time, 
"postmortem" e-mails stored in their account are delivered.

The missives could be basic information, such as e-mail passwords 
sent to a girlfriend or banking data to relatives -- or more 
emotionally explosive notes that tell a spouse or friend what 
couldn't be said during life.

"It's really important for someone to know all of this information we 
have out there," said Gary Altman, a Rockville estate lawyer who asks 
his clients to arrange to give passwords to family members. 
"Everything is hidden in the clouds. If no one knows it's there or 
where to get it, how are you going to find it?"

Pierce learned this lesson the hard way. Her sister-in-law died 
suddenly last year, and as the family was grieving, the woman's 
husband realized that decisions needed to be made about her 
swimming-lesson business. But nobody knew her passwords to e-mail 
accounts or other sites. The relatives guessed. They guessed some 
more. Finally, after more than a week, they were able to get in.

"This awful tragedy was compounded by the fact that nobody knew her 
passwords," Pierce said.

Service providers offer varying degrees of helpfulness in such situations.

Some, like Google, will unlock e-mail, video, photo and shopping 
accounts if family members have a death certificate and a previous 
e-mail sent to them by the departed. The process can take a while. 
Facebook will close accounts if hoops are jumped through; otherwise, 
the account goes into "memorial" mode, meaning it's still out there 
but most features are disabled.

Other providers are more stringent. Second Life will not transfer an 
account unless there is a will, court order or other relevant legal 
documents. Yahoo, with 106 million e-mail users, is perhaps the 
toughest. In a statement, the company said, "Internet users who want 
to be sure their e-mail and other online accounts are accessible to 
their legal heirs may want to work with their attorneys to plan an 
offline process for such access as part of their estate planning 

Similar rules apply to the firm's popular photo-sharing site, Flickr. 
Asked whether pictures would remain online unless the user leaves 
other instructions in a will or gives the password to someone else, a 
Yahoo spokeswoman said, "Yes, that is correct."

For many, like Pierce, having loved ones locked out of her accounts 
is a scary prospect. A month ago, when a friend sent her a link to 
Legacy Locker, she signed up. The site asks for two verifiers who 
would be contacted to confirm a death. Pierce chose her husband and 
her best friend, who then received e-mails checking to see whether 
they were willing to "help oversee the distribution of Heather 
Pierce's digital assets."

As those e-mails zoomed through the cloud, Pierce saw a colorful page 
where she could list her online accounts and name beneficiaries.

Extra security

The process is no more difficult than signing up for an e-mail 
account but has an extra dose of security, said the company's 
founder, 36-year-old San Francisco entrepreneur Jeremy Toeman. The 
site is so encrypted, he said, that even he can't see user 
information. "I'm the opposite of Google," he said. "I know 
absolutely nothing about my customers."

He does know that more than 10,000 people have signed up. He expects many more.

"We're in an era now where people are really going to have to pay 
attention to what their online assets are," Toeman said. "Five years 
ago, that terminology -- digital assets -- didn't even make sense. 
Now it does."

Roger Clarke                                 http://www.rogerclarke.com/

Xamax Consultancy Pty Ltd      78 Sidaway St, Chapman ACT 2611 AUSTRALIA
                    Tel: +61 2 6288 1472, and 6288 6916
mailto:Roger.Clarke at xamax.com.au                http://www.xamax.com.au/

Visiting Professor in the Cyberspace Law & Policy Centre      Uni of NSW
Visiting Professor in Computer Science    Australian National University

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