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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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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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