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The Internet Doesn’t Know When You’re Dead

Whether they know it or not, Internet users are constantly building up their digital legacies. But what happens to that ‘dot-com estate’ when someone dies? A growing number of companies are making it their business to bury the cyber lives of the truly dep

Konrad Daubek and Lina Panitz

Anton Wagner* was 18 years old when he died in a car crash. After his burial, his parents cleared his room, cancelled his insurance policies and memberships, in short wound down everything concerning Anton.

But they had no idea of how to deal with his computer -- what he'd signed up for, what his passwords were. E-mail addresses, Facebook and other social media profiles, Ebay and Amazon accounts, online-banking, Paypal – the number of places their son may have had connections seemed overwhelming.

Which is exactly why Birgit Janetzky of Freiburg, Germany decided to start offering people like Wagner's parents some much needed assistance. Two years ago she founded Semno, a company that specializes in handling deceased peoples' digital estates.

Janetzky and an IT specialist start out by examining the contents of a deceased person's computer for clues about their online accounts. They then write up a report for the family, which then decides how it wishes to proceed. The basic analysis costs 139 euros. The cost of additional work, such as deleting online profiles and user accounts, or repayment of money in accounts like Paypal, varies according to the amount of data there is and how much time it takes to deal with it.

"When I tell people who visit our stand at fairs that I'm in the business of handling deceased peoples' digital estates, 98 people out of 100 tell me they never thought about the issue before," says Janetzky. Hardly anyone, she says, has given any thought to what happens to his or her Internet data after they die.

A young but growing market

And yet Internet use, and particularly the use of social networks, is increasing at such a fast clip that online legacy issues are increasingly pertinent. What to do, for example, if a business partner who was working on a major contract suddenly dies? How do you access a data cloud if the only colleague who knew the password is in a coma?

Janetzky isn't the only one to have made a business out of the situation. Some Americans also founded companies in 2010, the best known of which are legacylocker.com, deathswitch.com and assetlock.com. But they work slightly differently in that clients open accounts with them to deposit data that in the event of death can be sent to designated persons.

Similar companies have also sprung up in German-speaking countries over the past few years. Xsen.de, for example, allows users to post all passwords and other relevant data for an annual fee of 12 euros. The information then gets passed on to relevant parties in the event of death. All the data is encrypted and is not available to those running the platform. Each user gets an access code on registering that they are asked to give to somebody they trust.

When someone dies, the person who has a copy of the code contacts the site, which then confirms the death with relevant authorities. Once the death is confirmed, the information is sent on. All companies offering these services work pretty much the same way, although specific services may differ.

The German datamemory.de and Swiss securesafe.com, which is one of the leading companies, store not only passwords but photos, contracts and other confidential material that they will release to the person designated by the account holder. For 1.20 euros a month, for example, SecureSafe provides 100 megabytes of storage space where as many passwords as the account holder wishes can be stored and will in the event of death be sent to two designated people. For 9.90 euros per month, 25 gigabytes of space is available and 20 people anywhere in the world can be advised, also by registered snail mail.

Datamemory.de offers a comparable service for 24.99 euros a month. Other services offer free accounts with less storage room and fewer options. Special security certificates do not yet exist for such services and consumer protection groups still have very little experience with them. In general, such services can't yet be evaluated – the market is still too young.

"I remain skeptical," says Anton Steiner, president of the German Forum for Inheritance Law. "It's difficult to judge if these services will last." Steiner points out that the problem of managing a deceased person's data is not exactly new, and that it can still be dealt with by more traditional means.

Ensuring post-death privacy

Anyone who doesn't want their heirs to see certain letters or diaries, or wishes for example to keep the existence of an illegitimate child a secret, can appoint an executor (who may also be a family member or friend) and instruct them via a will to destroy certain content be it on a computer or not.

In one case, an elderly man didn't want his only daughter to find out about his very active love life. Porn collections are also often something people do not want found by their heirs. An executor can make sure that the right information gets to the right people – that can range from the number of a Swiss bank account to online access to a checking or Paypal account.

Inheritance law expert Steiner advises everyone to "ask themselves: if I die today, where is my data and who should know what?" That question will become ever more crucial as more and more contracts are agreed on digitally, including insurance contracts. If they are not on file somewhere they may be overlooked by heirs.

Susanne Dehmel of Bitkom, the German Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media, says the surest thing is to deposit all data with a notary public -- although that may be easier said than done because "accounts and passwords change all the time." People have to decide for themselves what offers them the best options that are both secure and practical. Keeping a list in a home safe is one possibility. If one dies without having addressed the issue, everything goes to one's heirs – if it can be found, that is.

*not his real name

Read the original story in German

Photo - Arpingstone

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