A mum, dad and child hold hands as they walk along a beach

Dying in a digital age: how to preserve your soul

The extent to which our lives are now played out on the internet would have been a surprise to many of us only a short time ago. There can be very few people under the age of 50 who do not conduct at least part of their lives online. Whether this is for business purposes, social networking, entertainment or management of finances, most of what we do involves virtual or digital assets.

How many of us, in the midst of our busy, digitally enabled days give much thought as to how these assets will be dealt with when we are no longer here? How will our loved ones be able to access our virtual assets and online accounts? What happens to the legacy we leave by way of our digital archive, our e-mails, Facebook updates, photographs and Tweets? What happens to our “digital soul”?

This issue was raised in The Guardian this week with the news that Facebook is to allow users to nominate a “legacy contact” who will be able to look after the user’s account if they die. The legacy contact’s powers will be limited to responding to new friend requests, uploading profile pictures and a pinned post for the profile. Alternatively, a user can opt for the account to be removed completely. The options can be found in Facebook’s security settings. The Guardian reporter writes in a light hearted way about the difficulty of facing up to his own mortality, brought about by choosing a legacy contact and the prospect of deleting the account, but at least an option now exists for those who would like to exert some control over this part of their online life after their death.

What, for instance, will happen to all your e-mails? Few of us are likely to be in the position of the poet Wendy Cope whose 40,000 e-mails were acquired by the British Library for £32,000, but passing on e-mail account details could be crucial as this may be the key to other accounts, perhaps financial or commercial in nature. This may be especially important for small business owners where details of key customers, contacts and suppliers might be stored in a contact address book.

Although the copyright in these items lies with the writer, the problem is one of access. E-mail providers differ in their policies but a few years ago Google introduced an Inactive Account Manager which enables users to decide either that all their data should be deleted after a certain period of inactivity, or that notification of inactivity should be given to a person nominated by the user who will be able to download all data authorised by the user. This seems a clear policy which hopefully others might follow in the future. In the interim, regular back up of any such data that you wish to keep would be advisable, together with the deletion of any data trails that you do not wish to leave behind.

The lesson for clients is clear: give some thoughts to using tools such as Facebook’s legacy contact and Google’s Inactive Account Manager. Changing your settings is no more likely to hasten your demise than making a Will, and remember that, unless you take action, your online life will live on.

The Private Capital Blog will now be taking a Summer holiday but will return on 18 August.

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