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Digital death: Log off in peace

by Prasad Krishna last modified May 28, 2014 07:24 AM
From email and e-banking to shopping and social media sites, Indians have expanded their online footprint. Now, a small but rising number are planning for their digital death.

The article by Purnima Sharma was published in the Times of India on May 25, 2014. Nishant Shah is quoted.


A few days after his son Yousmann's death in a road accident, Kongposh Bazaz began searching for the 19-year-old's Facebook password. "There was such an outpouring of grief on his wall that I felt the need to 'speak' to my son's friends on his behalf, telling them to be strong," he says. Facebook does not hand over access to a person's account even when they die but fortunately, Yousmann had shared his password with a close friend who gave it to Bazaz. "Like any teenager, he did not share it with his parents," says the 51-year-old publisher, revealing that while he has memorialized his son's Facebook page, he would prefer that his own online accounts were closed.

As we build our lives in a virtual world, there's a growing concern about what happens to our online presence after death. In the West, some people are writing out digital wills, spelling out how their virtual life should be handled post-mortem . In India, too, a small number is taking an interest in their digital afterlife. Sandeep Nerlekar, MD and CEO Terentia Consultants, an estate planning firm that handles both online (through a portal www.onlinewill .co.in) and digital wills, says, "Now, even social networking sites are becoming part of one's assets."

Nishant Shah, director, Research, at the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society, says that though the trend is nascent, people have started including their digital accounts in their wills. "However, it is evident, that as more and more of our lives get mediated by digital devices, and as we live on the cloud, we are going to have to find legal and personal options of making sure that important data gets transmitted beyond our lives, and stored, archived and managed in responsible ways for those who find value in it."

But in a country where only a small percentage writes wills for physical assets, it's not something a lot of people are thinking about proactively. Sudha Sarin, Delhi-based communications specialist, says "It doesn't get priority, like your financial assets," she says. At some point, she intends to leave a list of all her online account-ids and passwords in a place where her sons can find them easily. "This will give them access to my friends list so that they can be informed. And, in turn, let people who knew me reach out to them at such a time," she says. But she will want her family to close her accounts a couple of months after. "I wouldn't want my accounts to just sit out there. It's a way of closure," she says.

Sarin faced these questions of mortality after she lost her sister Geeta to cancer three months ago. She has decided to memorialize Geeta's Facebook page. Facebook doesn't allow family members access to data/passowords etc but kin can either delete or "memorialize" the accounts of the deceased. Sarin believes she's taken a decision her sister would have supported. "Reading her posts and seeing her pictures act like a balm - it's a catharsis of sorts," she says.

American blogger Evan Caroll, who runs The Digital Beyond which talks about digital afterlife, writes that people need to start planning for what is to be done with their email, online banking and trading, social media , photo-sharing , online billpay and blogs after death. In an email interview with TOI, he suggests a simple conversation with one's heirs, using online services like SecureSafe that let users store passwords to pass along when they are gone or speaking to one's lawyer.

Companies have different policies on what to do with accounts of those deceased. Last year, Google introduced a stepby-step process allowing users to plan what they want done with their account, and in some cases they provide the contents of an email account which hasn't left specific instructions after a "careful review" . Yahoo and Facebook currently have no service akin to a virtual will, but offer the option of closing down a deceased person's email accounts and social media profiles , though only after receiving verification of death. Arunav Sinha, director, corporate communications , India, China & South East Asia of Yahoo, says that virtual legacy planning is a personal prerogative in India today. "We can't hand over any data to anyone, as per the terms of our service. Requests for access have to come through a legal process and with the relevant documentation," he says.

Caroll says there is no standard way in which online accounts are handled once you're gone. "People too have varied responses - while some look at it as a place to remember and grieve, others believe it's strange to continue the online profile."

Rekha Aggarwal, advocate, Supreme Court, has started suggesting to clients that they keep their online accounts in mind too. "Talking about myself, I've already passed on my password to my son in case of any eventuality. I've told him to close my accounts because I don't want to be left hanging in the virtual world."

But there are many for whom "the sense of digital life beyond death is exciting ," points out Nishant Shah. "I know of people who actually leave a last message to be posted on social media by their friends or family. There are some whose accounts are now transparently run by their partners or families." '

Accessing a deceased person's account is something Pooja Dager isn't comfortable with. The 37-year-old HR manager has "not even tried to venture into that territory" after her husband's passing. "Only his bank accounts were transferred to my son's name, that's it. The others I try not to think about. I just let them be," she adds.

But as internet users age, many more people will have to confront these issues.

Making a digial will

Take an inventory of your online accounts and plan a way for your heirs to access your 'memories' such as photos, movies and emails Give instructions whether you want your page(s) closed or if you'd like someone to answer your friends' posts on your behalf, maybe for a few months You might even like to incorporate details of your digital assets in your will. Consult your attorney for advice.
Evan Carroll, The Digital Beyond

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