Final arrangements: Hitting the digital dead man's switch

Go beyond Google -- here's how to automatically wrap up your online affairs and ensure a proper digital burial after you die

The one part of our lives online that we need to do a lot more thinking about is our deaths online.

Right now, when someone dies, the fate of their digital life -- their online accounts, their virtual possessions -- typically is left up in the air to the discretion of his survivors (assuming there are any). Too often, such items simply evaporate. A dead man's Gmail account, for instance, will expire if not accessed for nine months. A person's entire digital legacy could end up inaccessible or irretrievably deleted because they didn't think to leave instructions for how to deal with it.

But there are a few signs that the major providers-that-be for our online lives are getting a clue about the dead-man problem.

Just last week, Google announced a new feature specifically designed to "[make] it easy to tell Google what you want done with your digital assets when you die or can no longer use your account." Adorned with the sober and somewhat forgettable name of Inactive Account Manager, this feature lets you pick a timeout period for your account, ranging from three months to one year. If that timeout period looms close, a message can be sent to an alternate email address or mobile phone number to warn you of the impending deadline. Once that timeout period expires, you can then have up to 10 people you trust notified or have pieces of data automatically shared with them, and optionally have your account deleted once everything you've asked for has been carried out.

This isn't a bad start, given how many people use Google's services more than casually. More than a few people I know have essentially migrated their entire life's workflow into Google, from Docs to Gmail and beyond, and don't keep anything on their local PC (doubly so if they migrate to a Chromebook). It's too easy for such things to disappear because no one else knows how to get to them.

Kudos to Google for providing a way to avoid such disaster. But that's only Google.

How about Facebook, the other big provider of infrastructure for our current digital lives? If a person dies, their survivors can have that person's account changed over in such a way that their Facebook account becomes a kind of memorial page. It's no longer accessible through public search -- only the Facebook friends that existed at the time the account was switched can see it -- and many other account activities we take for granted with a living user are suspended, such as the use of automated apps.

Unfortunately, not everyone thinks to prepare in advance, and sometimes next of kin have to go to court to prove they can access the deceased person's account. Worse, the property rights vary wildly from state to state, especially when they involve intangible assets or contractual relations. And Facebook keeps a strong distinction between the right to access the service and the rights to the content posted through it, so initiatives like the Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act are being drafted to untangle such legal Gordian knots.

Other people have tried to solve this problem partway, by providing what could be called digital dead man's switches. Services like Deadman.io or Deadmansswitch.net can be programmed to email someone or deliver a file if a certain period of time goes by without you checking in. A user's account passwords could be delivered automatically to next to kin this way. Also, a password vault application (such as KeePass) could be configured to store crucial account information, with the password left to next of kin via one's will.

Given that the legal landscape for digital legacies is still in flux, it seems more likely that the solutions will in the short run be primarily technical, whether provided directly by the owners of the services themselves (Google, Facebook) or through enterprising third parties who sense an opportunity helping us tie together the loose ends of our digital lives -- and deaths.

This story, "Final arrangements: Hitting the digital dead man's switch," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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