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Digital inheritance

I thought this article on leaving computer/online passwords in wills was interesting.

I have to admit, I’m not quite at the stage where I think I have much of value behind passwords, notwithstanding the plethora of PINs, passwords and security questions demanded by my bank, utility companies, even my gym.

I can see the issues arising from the monetary value of digital content like music and films, as well as the sentimental value of photographs, could concern some people; in many cases, the digital inheritance may in the future be worth more than the rest of a person’s estate. Particularly for those still with student loans to repay and who struggle to get on the property ladder.

I am not sure whether people will be so keen to give out, for example, email passwords. I suspect that the privacy afforded by password protection of emails might actually be welcome to many people. There might be an end to Mr Thompson’s illicit affair being uncovered by perfumed love letters hidden in an underwear drawer (though the underwear might be a hint).

The digital media issue does throw up a few technical issues, though. Will it be possible in the future to divide up someone’s iTunes collection between different beneficiaries in the same way as a physical music collection? Perhaps I am showing my lack of media awareness – perhaps you can already do that. It hasn’t been an issue which has cropped up for us yet. On the other hand, digital photographs can easily be replicated and shared (if they aren’t already all over Facebook anyway).

But what about when someone doesn’t leave details of their password for their executors? In the future will Apple, Microsoft et al have departments to deal with requests from executors to hand over content – like many big companies do with more familiar incorporeal assets like shares? Gathering together the money in someone’s estate doesn’t usually involves handling notes and coins, so why not?

Perhaps the answer lies in the companies’ terms of use: “social networking site Facebook allows a deceased user's profile to be taken down, but will not pass on passwords to give next of kin access to the account.” Presumably there is some clause in Facebook’s small print where they claim ownership to everything you do or say on the site (and with their new chronology feature, perhaps your biography rights?)

Is there anything you should think about if you’re an executor of a will which includes a password? I suspect there will be lots of things thrown up over the years but my immediate thoughts would be to act quickly to secure the account, whether by changing the password, closing the account or moving the content elsewhere (see my earlier post about who can see a copy of a will). Otherwise, future editions of Who Do You Think You Are? might be a lot more illuminating.

Alternatively, a letter of wishes (or video) would be the obvious place to leave these details.

This article provides a bit more information about ways to pass on online accounts (I have to pass credit for the link to the Globe and Mail here). I have to say I’m not sure of what extra value many of the sites listed give over and above passing on your online storage password. At least one just looks like a fancy letter of wishes, or an online version of that drawer in your kitchen with all the Welcome to Wessex Water letters with sixteen digit account numbers. looks downright dangerous: “When you do not enter your password for some period of time, the system prompts you again several times. With no reply, the computer deduces you are dead or critically disabled and your pre-scripted messages are automatically emailed to those named by you”.

On the other hand looks a little more fun: “ is a social network with an online messaging service that lets anyone schedule messages up to 50 years in advance.” Though it does raise the spectre of being lectured by your parents when you’re 85, without even the possibility of answering back.

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