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Your Digital Afterlife: An Interview with John Romano and Evan Carroll

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What happens to your digital possessions—photos, blogs, videos, and social sites—after you die? In this interview, the authors of Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy? talk about how they got interested in the subject of the digital afterlife and what you can do to make sure you are in control of your digital legacy.
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Peachpit: How did you get the idea for your website, What got you interested in this subject?

John Romano and Evan Carroll: Our interest in this subject started independently, and it wasn’t until 2008 that chance brought us together. In 2001 two events happened in John’s life: His son was born and his grandfather passed away. He started to consider how different his digital life was compared to that of his grandfather and felt a need to make sure things were in order for his family. Around 2003 Evan was asked by a relative to “take care” of her computer in the event of her passing. It was something he’d never considered before. In 2008 Evan and John were both working at the same web development firm and the idea came up again during a brainstorming session. They decided that somebody should be talking about the topic so they proposed a session for SXSW 2009. The session was accepted as a Core Conversation, a stripped down format with only two presenters that’s kind of like a group discussion. After a raucous conversation, they returned home from Austin feeling the need to continue the conversation and The Digital Beyond was born.

Peachpit: Why did you decide to write the book, Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter Are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy?

John and Evan: Our original intent with The Digital Beyond was to serve as a hub for this growing topic and industry, but with more research our focus quickly shifted. We came to realize that not much was certain about digital estate planning except that seemingly nobody was talking about it. We became evangelists in a way and set out to help people understand the new digital lifestyle and how that related to their legacy. The book is another tactic supporting that mission of spreading awareness.

Peachpit: How can your book help in securing someone’s digital afterlife?

John and Evan: We’ve heard countless stories where grieving families have lost access to precious content or they’ve found content that revealed embarrassing content that belonged to the deceased. Our book will help you avoid both of these scenarios. By taking an inventory of your digital assets, recording the appropriate access credentials and documenting your wishes, you have a document that outlines your digital estate plan and all of the information needed to execute that. We’ll help you create that document step-by-step and understand the various complexities dealing with digital assets. We’ll also help you keep that plan secure until it’s needed so that your digital things remain secure until the time comes.

Peachpit: What is the biggest mistake that people make with regard taking care of digital matters before they die?

John and Evan: The biggest mistake you can make is to not take any action at all. We’re sure that you have some digital things that you would like to leave to your heirs. And you might even have things that should probably disappear. You’ll have some form of digital afterlife, whether you take action or not. By not taking action you leave everything to chance.

Peachpit: What’s the most important piece of advice you would give to someone about managing the digital aspects of estate planning?

John and Evan: If you do nothing else, keeping a simple list of user names and passwords is essential. Having this list will not only help you heirs, it will also help keep you organized during your life. Now, some folks might say that they don’t care about their digital assets, and that may very well be true. But your family might, and you should consider how they might feel if they suddenly couldn't access your precious family mementos, like digital photos, movies, emails, and countless other digital files.

Peachpit: How would you vet a third party company that deals with digital death details?

John and Evan: This is a really great question, because there is so much to consider when selecting a digital estate planning service. Your first step, as with any online business, is to check and make sure that the company is reputable. We’ve done a lot of that for you, but you should check to make sure that the company has a security certificate and otherwise appears reputable. Next you should understand how the service works. Try to find out if you have any limits to the number of assets you can add and if it’s enough for you. Also investigate how they verify your death and share the information with your heirs and make sure you’re comfortable with that process. You should also consider the cost and if that’s right for you. The good news is that several types of companies exist, and we have an entire chapter dedicated to how these work and how to pick one for your digital estate plan.

Peachpit: Someone may wish their data to be purged upon death. What are the obligations of companies to comply with these wishes?

John and Evan: At present there’s not any obligation at all. Most terms of service are written to protect the company should they wish to do this, but doesn’t obligate them to take a certain action. Many companies like Facebook, Twitter and Yahoo allow families to request that accounts be closed, but the data could very well live on inside of these companies’ data centers.

Peachpit: Do most corporations have policies with regard to allowing loved ones to have access to a deceased person’s personal data on a work computer?

John and Evan: We haven’t heard of a specific policy regarding work computers, but it’s probably handled on a case-by-case basis. It seems unlikely that a company would actively block access, but obtaining it might be difficult. Some companies don’t take issue with employees storing personal information on work computers, but it can be a hassle not just in the event of death, but other events like termination or incapacity. In the book we recommend that you keep personal data off of your work computer, just in case.

Peachpit: How does the transition of personal data from a single hard drive to “the cloud” affect an executor’s ability to access and manage the decedent’s data?

John and Evan: This transition is huge. It’s exactly what is complicating digital estate planning. Digital data on a single hard drive is much like physical things. It exists in one place and that place is probably your residence. It’s likely easy for your heirs to find it, and access is generally simple because they have direct access to the device. Data stored in the cloud is very different. Your heirs might not know about it, and even if they do they might not have the right user name and password to access it. Furthermore, you’re obligated to the terms of service for any particular service, which might even say that your account is not transferable and thus not available to your heirs in the event of your death. So for anything stored in the cloud, you’ll have definite awareness, access and legal issues to overcome.

Peachpit: If you create a document with all your passwords so your heirs can access your accounts, how do you keep it private while you’re alive?

John and Evan: Generally speaking the trick is to place it in a secure location and have a trigger that releases it when the time is right. That description makes it sound like something akin to the toys of secret agents, but there are lots of practical ways to do this. For many people using one of the digital estate planning services is a great idea. They will help you document your passwords, keep them secure and provide the right trigger to release the information to your digital executor. But that’s not the only option. You can keep the list in your home safe and give your executor the combination. By keeping it in your home you control access to a degree and will know if it’s been accessed before your passing. Another option is to put the list in a bank deposit box and will the contents to your executor. Then again, you might just want to keep it in your desk drawer and tell your executor where to find it. It simply depends upon how much security you want to have. But don’t forget that it needs to be easy to update, especially if you add new accounts or change your passwords often.

Peachpit: Here’s a scenario.  A loved one dies, and this person was a real techno-geek. They used Flickr, Facebook, Mint, etc., and didn’t keep any paper records. Now you’re the executor, and you don’t have the slightest idea how to access their online data.  What do you do first?  What do you do next?

John and Evan: There are several keys that a survivor can use to gain access to online accounts. Gaining access to the techno-geek’s computer is the first place to start. There’s a good chance that website passwords are saved in the browser or in the operating system. If this fails, the survivor needs to find access to the techno-geek’s email. Gaining access to the email address that was used to create an account like Flickr will let the survivor reset the password and log in.  If no credentials are saved on the computer and there is no access to email, the job gets a lot harder. Gaining access to email accounts and then resetting passwords at the different Web services is still the easier way to go. This will most likely require the survivor to present the email service a death certificate. Even then, some email providers refuse to give survivors access to the decedent’s accounts because of limitations in their terms of service. In this scenario the survivor will be forced to address each online service one at a time and hope that they have a deceased user policy that makes it possible to recover any precious assets or data.

Peachpit: Digital seems to be at once ephemeral yet very persistent.  How do each of you deal with your personal treasures, like family photos?

John: First, I back up my data, twice. I back up to a local hard drive (so I have fast access) and to an online backup service (to prevent catastrophic loss). The mantra for digital preservation is that multiple copies keeps stuff safe. So I have three copies. Second, I store a list of all my passwords. Every time I change one I update my list. In the event of my untimely demise, my wife, who is also my legal executor and the sole beneficiary, knows how to access it. But this isn’t the right solution for everyone. This kind of plan requires a level of trust and simplicity of arrangement that many people don’t have. The rule is that the solution needs to match the individual’s situation.

Peachpit: Has working on this site and book changed the way you think about death?  I would think working on this every day would be a constant reminder of your own mortality.

John and Evan: Researching the subject at first felt a bit morbid, but after a while we stopped focusing on the death part and started focusing on the aid we could provide to individuals. If our attitudes have changed, it’s that we feel a closer connection to our content, and a more urgent need to be able to express some control over how it’s handled after we die. And we certainly appreciate the significance of death more, but it’s no less troubling. In fact Evan’s grandmother passed away while we were writing the book, and it was still a very painful event.

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