Digital Graveyard

When someone dies, they leave behind their worldly goods as well as the data in electronic clouds, social networks and e-mail accounts. Their heirs will be grateful if this digital legacy is dealt with while their loved one is still alive.

By Peter Hossli

Three months ago, an acquaintance of mine that I never knew, died. His name was Holger. A year earlier he had invited me to become his friend on the online platform LinkedIn. I accepted. I never met him.

On the very day that his death notice was printed in Swiss newspapers, LinkedIn invited me to evaluate Holger’s abilities – something the social network continued to do for weeks.

Stéphane was someone I knew well. I shared work with him, thoughts and laughter. We were connected on Skype and LinkedIn. He died last September. His face is still smiles at me kindly from my Skype contact list. His status: offline.

Stéphane also regularly appears to me on LinkedIn. I’m supposed to appraise his journalistic skills as well as his graphic and narrative skills with a click. Stéphane’s profile says that he has held his current job «since October 2010 until now».

That «now» is jarring. When someone dies, they continue to live online for months or even years, through their accounts on Twitter and Facebook, a personal website, picture galleries on Flickr or videos on YouTube. Their digital mail accounts still accept e-mails, or they spout messages like: «I’m on holiday.»

Only gradually are lawyers and social media platform providers beginning to deal with the online presence of the deceased. Basically, the digital legacy belongs to the closest relatives. Since often they don’t address it, accounts remain active for long after a person’s death. An estimated five percent of Facebook users are no longer still alive. With 1.3 billion users, that would amount to 65 million so-called zombie profiles.

Foresight can simplify things considerably. Passwords may be deposited with a notary. There are companies that draw up digital wills in which one can determine exactly what is to happen with the bits and bytes after one’s demise.

Those who neglect to do so burden their bereaved with substantial hassle, in addition to a few tricky legal and ethical problems.
Take e-mail accounts, for example. These go to the heirs. But are they really allowed to read messages that were meant to be private? What if a husband discovers his deceased wife’s secret love e-mails? In theory, her right of privacy is protected beyond death. In practice, the heirs get access to all the e-mail accounts and will have to decide what they’ll read.

What about social media? The Zurich University of Applied Sciences conducted a survey on this in 2012: «Sterben und Erben in der digitalen Welt (Dying and inheriting in the digital world).» The study’s bottom line: «A majority of platform providers appear to feel that the level of suffering is not high enough to warrant addressing the issue in the form of openly communicated rules.»
Some of them do offer to release certain data, while others merely assist in completely deleting accounts.

At Facebook things move quickly, at least. Heirs are enabled not only to report the death of a user but to communicate it to all Facebook users. A death notice or an obituary in a newspaper will suffice as proof. Facebook will immediately «memorialize» the profile of the deceased.

Dates and profiles of the deceased will not be passed on by Facebook. The only option is to delete the profile entirely. In order for this to happen the heirs must submit a death certificate.

The German provider Xing has similar procedures. It does not pass on any data. When a death is reported, Xing will send an e-mail to the so called recovery address. If the person concerned fails to respond within three months, Xing deletes the account, including the data.
Google is more difficult. The web corporation demands the gmail address of the deceased, one of their old e-mails, plus a death certificate. All these documents have to be submitted in an English translation. However, Google will pass on the data, if the legal department can approve the request. Twitter also requires a death certificate in English, or tweets will remain tweets.

Holger’s profile has disappeared in the meantime, but Stéphane’s is still active.