The Digital Side of Death

After Bereavement

Bereavement is bad enough. It gets worse when the partner, relatives or friends of the deceased find out just how many activities he or she conducted through their personal computer, for which the account password is now not known.

Cancelling or modifying these usually requires access to email, and often another authentication device such as a mobile phone. Whilst Internet browsers have the capability to store logon credentials for web sites and thus be available once a user is logged on, this facility may not have been used, or may not be available for high-sensitivity web sites such as electronic banking. Any failure requiring re-entry of these credentials can require long periods of time waiting for a customer service agent from the organisation owning the web site, and then a long conversation over a poor quality phone line with a non-native English speaker in order to explain the situation.

Passwords and Credentials

Obtaining access to a machine if you don’t have an account on it is not difficult if you have physical access to the machine and it can be rebooted. Any IT support provider should be able to do this.

However, almost every electronic service now requires a user name and password, and many now use two-factor authentication, commonly achieved by sending a message to a mobile phone. This means that the deceased’s mobile phone may also need to be operational in order to access their electronic services. If it’s not – you’ll have a lot of talking to do, and you may be required to submit a lot of documentation to establish your right to access the service.

Web browsers obligingly offer to remember credentials for web sites but this remembering is specific to a machine. If the machine dies, the passwords become inaccessible. Retrieving stored credentials is possible, but will require highly specialised geek services. If the machine from which they must be recovered is not working, the process gets even more complicated and extremely expensive if the machine uses a solid-state drive.

Insurance against this situation is easy, but requires pre-planning. Make sure all your credentials (user name and password) for services that you use are written down and updated as required. Store this document along with your Will, so that it can be accessed if required.

Social Media and Web Sites

What happens to the deceased’s Facebook page? If you don’t have access to it, expect to have to produce documentation indicating your right to have it “memorialised”. This means that it won’t be discoverable in search and cannot be changed. You won’t have access to the account. Facebook does provide for “legacy” contact, but much easier is to include your username and password for Facebook in the list of other credentials.

Twitter and other social media will require extensive documentation, including a death certificate, to prove your right to close accounts.

If the deceased had a web site, the process for closing this will vary depending on the service provider. It may be as simple as a phone call, but is likely to require documentation.

Email

Email is often a crucial communication channel, so ensuring that this is operational is a high priority.

Once email is working, the next task is to follow up any pending issues. These may touch on any aspect of life and can include insurance claims, legal disputes, or complaints about goods or services. Then there are the ‘keeping in touch’ personal emails, often no more frequent than one or two a year but still important. A broadcast message to all of these people announcing what has happened saves the embarrassment of their Christmas email bouncing and attempts at phone contact ending in “This number is no longer in service”. But identifying these occasional correspondents from an Inbox which may contain thousands of messages using native Apple Mail, Gmail or Outlook facilities is not easy. Use of a specialist service provider is recommended.

Photos

Digital photos are seldom required to wrap up the affairs of the deceased, but there may be some which are of particular significance to relatives, and they are increasingly used in memorial services and functions as well as being sent to distant family members. Finding them amid the tens of thousands of images that may be stored on the computer or attached storage devices is a daunting prospect, as camera storage is often transferred to other media with the intention of “sorting them out later”, which is seldom realised.

The days of the scrapbook with photos annotated with those present and the location are long gone. The normal situation is to find folders with names such as “Greece 2008”, “Christmas Canberra 2003” perhaps containing thousands of pictures and the occasional video. Dates of the photos may be the only clue to their having interesting content without looking at all of them. Fortunately, most computers provide a thumbnail view of image and video content as an option for viewing folder content.

If photos exist as prints or slides, equipment for scanning these to create digital copies is now readily available. Once images are in digital form they can be easily shared via photo sharing services, such as Google Photos albums. To preserve information that might have been written on the back of photos or, it may be worth adding captions to the photos, using software such as Caption Pro.

Text Documents

The majority of text documents on computer may be manuals of little significance, but older people sometimes use a computer as a typewriter, and prepare correspondence which is then printed out and mailed. These documents may pertain to ongoing issues and the deceased’s Will may even be amongst them. Wills in the format of electronic documents have accepted by a South Australian court as evidence of intention ( see [ https://www.piperalderman.com.au/publications/private-client-services/article/7584 ]) so the identification of an any such document can be of great importance, especially if the content differs from any other Wills. Expert advice should be obtained on preservation of such a document if one is identified.

Obtaining a list and summary of text documents on a computer is a difficult task,requiring technology for accessing the enormous variety of text documents which may exist on a computer. Using a specialist service provider is recommended.

What can I do?

The best way of minimising these problems in the event of your demise is to keep and maintain a list of usernames and passwords for all the electronic services that you use. The list should be easily accessible if required. Lodging it with a legal representative is one way of achieving this. Keeping the list current is not a small task, as passwords expire and you new electronic services needing credentials keep appearing. If any of your services use two-factor authentication, note the mobile phone number required and how to change it. If you have a mobile phone with keyboard locking enabled, ensure that the unlocking code is stored along with your credentials.

However, you may still need to trawl through thousands of email messages, photos and other electronic documents on an unfamiliar computer. Look for an IT support provider who offers this kind of service – not all of them do.

Keeping backups of the entire contents of a computer is also useful – in the event of the computer not working, electronic documents are recoverable, and credentials remembered by Web browsers may be recoverable. Note that if you perform an image backup, which is an easy way of recording all the data on a computer, it can only be restored onto identical hardware. If this isn’t available, you are up for some expensive services.

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