@pauljacobson any chance you could do a post on what happens to your cloud based assets (apps, music, etc) when you die?— Imel Rautenbach (@imel) January 5, 2012
Imel Rautenbach recently asked me what happens to your content and profiles in the cloud when you die. Its an important question and I've started hearing it a lot lately. There are a couple reasons for this. The first reason that comes to mind is that people are increasingly concerned about what happens to their Facebook and Twitter profiles after they pass away? As ephemeral as these profiles and their content may seem, for many people these services (and other social Web services) document a person's thoughts and life experiences. Facebook with its Timeline feature is specifically designed to become a social and interactive life journal where you effectively maintain a media rich narrative of your life and your connections.
In some cases these social services will offer family and friends a way to keep a deceased person's profile alive in a suspended state. Facebook, for example, can memorialise a profile:
When a user passes away, we memorialize their account to protect their privacy. Memorializing an account sets the account privacy so that only confirmed friends can see the profile (timeline) or locate it in search. Friends and family can leave posts in remembrance. Memorializing an account also prevents anyone from logging into the account.
Dormant social media profiles and accounts could prove to be fertile ground for identity thieves going forward, especially if the late user didn't make use of the relevant privacy controls to restrict access to sensitive personal information.
Another reason why its important to think about your assets in the cloud is that we are increasingly storing significant amounts of data on cloud services. These data include photos and other multimedia as well as business and financial data. There are a variety of services which make it very easy to keep our data in the cloud and at a relatively low cost. You may use Evernote to store important information about insurance policies and bank accounts or Dropbox to store vital business and personal documents. Services like Backupify help you back up a variety of cloud based services and Amazon S3 gives you access to vast amounts of storage space at a pretty low cost.
Until now families sorting through a deceased family member's estate would have had to collate and work through assorted files and paper documents, that will likely change. Families are finding themselves faced with disparate digital archives which often contain the sort of information they require to manage and wind up an estate. It is very possible that a person could die and leave very little paper-based information which a family would require to manage and wind up the estate because all of that data would be digitally stored in the cloud. The challenge is that the only person who tends to know how to access those accounts has passed away, taking those details with him or her. One option would be to contact the service concerned, armed with proof of the person's passing, and ask for access. Another is far simpler and requires some planning.
Services like LastPass and 1Password offer convenient and secure ways to manage passwords for all these cloud services. They offer tremendous security benefits because they rely on a master password to securely pass your account specific access credentials to the relevant service. This means you don't have to type in your username and password every time and risk that being intercepted. If you are not using one of these services, you should seriously consider it. Aside from the security benefits, these services also offer a way for your family members to access your cloud services when you are gone. One strategy is to give your master password and username to your spouse and a second trusted family member or friend. Provided they keep that information securely, it will provide them with a convenient way to access your important data after you are gone. Just remember to pass along any password or other access credential updates!
Unfortunately your cloud services profiles and accounts are not the sorts of assets you can hand down to your heirs. The rights you have to access and use these services tend to be personal rights which tend to terminate when you die and can longer exercise any rights. The nature of these profiles and accounts is that they are closely associated with a person's identity, unlike assets like a house which can be transferred to a different person and in which owners tend to have "real" rights which are formally registered. One implication of this is that these profiles and accounts could be terminated when the services concerned learn of your death so it is essential that you give your family and, where appropriate, close friends access to these digital assets.