Web

What happens to your digital life after your real one ends?

What happens to your digital life after your real one ends

My wife’s mother, Pat, passed away a few weeks ago after a long illness. This was the first death in my family of someone with an active social-media life.

Pat had 345 friends on Facebook (far more than me or her daughter, by the way), which was indicative of the life she led in real life. And as the week leading up to her funeral marched on, those far-flung friends visited her wall to pay their respects, trade stories, and organize the funeral. “Pat” even made an appearance, in the form of one of her friends with access to the account, to invite everyone to her own funeral.

We learned from this “Facebook séance” that her online life was not as legally protected as her other assets. Her will, which she drafted when she learned of her illness, had no provisions for online property. As it turns out, the laws and contracts that govern your online presence after death are still being written, and in many cases, it falls to outdated ones.

First, social networks. Each service’s Terms of Service is different, but they mainly agree on this point: With proof of death, they will shut down the person’s account. Facebook even provides a memorial feature, which locks down access to a person’s account, blocks that person from appearing in the friend suggestions, but still allows confirmed friends at the time of death to keep posting on the wall in perpetuity.

The other consideration is if the family or executor of the deceased wants access to protected data from a social network. Say a person had some password-protected blogs that may shed light into the person’s state of mind before their suicide, which was the case in this situation involving British model Sahar Daftary. The law governing these communications is ancient, the 1986 Stored Communications Act. It obviously did not foresee our online future.

Without going into a lot of jargon, the Act protects communications providers from having to provide protected communications after a person’s death. Civil lawsuits have no effect. The only exceptions are law-enforcement authorities with a warrant (if they are conducting an investigation involving the deceased) or if the deceased’s will specifically addresses online communication, which few do. Even Daftary’s mother – who was the executor of her estate – had no power in this situation, although her case fell more because of jurisdictional considerations than case law.

The Stored Communications Act also governs online email providers like Gmail and Yahoo! In other words, the rights of the deceased overrule those of the living in the eyes of service providers. They reason that if the deceased wanted loved ones to access their online accounts, they would have furnished those people with the sufficient passwords. So far, federal judges have agreed. In fact, under the SCA a family can get themselves into some criminal trouble if they try to crack their loved one’s passwords.

Federal laws that would better define the online rights of a deceased person are currently going through the judicial review process, but they are at least a few years away from taking effect.

Another new arena is what happens to our cloud-based data when we die. It can be reasonably assumed that your Dropbox contents, for example, would fall under the same provisions of the Stored Communications Act (and its eventual successor) as your email and blogs, but what about property that you willingly purchased and keep in the cloud, like your music?

Bruce Willis gained some attention recently for a rumor that he was contemplating a lawsuit against Apple for the right to leave his iTunes music to his daughters. As you may know, you do not “own” any music you download from iTunes or the other music services. You are simply granted a license to use it on approved devices. The lawsuit rumor was unfounded, but it made people think about the implications. He could leave his kids all of the iPhones and iPods he wants, but they would not be able to transfer the contents to other devices. Believe it or not, it’s like owning a book. You can leave your kids your library, but they can’t go and reprint “The Da Vinci Code” for their own uses.

The bottom line is that if you are serious about what happens to your online life after your death, make sure your wishes are expressly spelled out in your will and other estate-planning documents. If your attorney is not comfortable is this new legal arena, find one that is. Once your documents are in order, make sure your executor has a list of all of your current passwords (or leave them in a safe deposit box to be opened upon your death). If the executor has expressed written permission in the form of the will and access to the passwords, the Stored Communications Act makes provisions that allow that person to carry out your wishes without delay or penalty.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Robots that eat landmines and clean your floors

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it's fun to gawk!
Mobile

Need a minute to yourself? Buy some alone time with the best tablets for kids

Looking to keep those tiny fingers and brains busy? Tablets aren’t just for grown-ups, and many are kid-friendly! Here's our list of the best tablets for kids, with parental controls and plenty of tempting features to satisfy your…
Computing

Boost your PCs power by learning how to overclock your CPU

Is your PC just chugging along, a little slower than you'd like? Sometimes you just need a little more power under the hood. Before you pick up some new hardware, learn how to overclock your CPU.
Cars

GPS units aren't dead! Our favorite models still do things your phone can't

Love hitting the open road but hate having to rely solely on your phone for getting around? Thankfully, the best in-car GPS systems will allow you to navigate and capitalize on a range of features sans your cellular network. Here are our…
Social Media

How to protect yourself from GoFundMe scams before donating

Can you spot a GoFundMe scam? While the fundraising platform says scams make up less than a tenth of one percent of campaigns, some do try to take advantages of others' charity -- like a case last year that made national news.
Computing

House votes to restore net neutrality rules, but effort faces long odds

The U.S. House of Representatives has approved the Save the Internet Act, a measure intended to restore net neutrality rules that were repealed in 2017 by the Federal Communications Commission.
Mobile

The FCC and White House want to bring high-speed internet to rural areas

The FCC and the White House unveiled new initiatives to bring high-speed internet to rural areas, including $20.4 billion in incentives to companies to build infrastructure. The FCC also announced ways to speed up the rollout of 5G.
Web

Search all of Craigslist at once with these great tools on web and mobile

Not finding what you need in your local area? Craigslist can be great for finding goods and services from further afield too. All you need do is learn these tips for how to search all of Craigslist at once.
Computing

Internet Explorer zero-day exploit makes files vulnerable to hacks on Windows PCs

Evidence of an Internet Explorer zero-day exploit capable of letting hackers steal files from Windows PCs was published online by a security researcher who also claims Microsoft knew of the vulnerability and opted not to patch it.
Business

Buying airline tickets too early is no longer a costly mistake, study suggests

When you book can play a big role in the cost of airline tickets -- so when is the best time to book flights? Earlier than you'd think, a new study suggests. Data from CheapAir.com suggests the window of time to buy at the best prices is…
Computing

Report says 20% of all 2018 web traffic came from bad bots

Distil Networks published its annual Bad Bot Report this week and announced that 20% of all web traffic in 2018 came from bad bots. The report had other similarly surprising findings regarding the state of bots as well.
Computing

Google Chrome will get a Reader Mode for distraction-free desktop browsing

If Google's testing of Reader Mode on the Chrome Canary desktop browser is successful, soon all Chrome users will gain access to this feature. Reader Mode strips away irrelevant content on a webpage for distraction-free browsing.
Computing

Worried about your online privacy? We tested the best VPN services

Browsing the web can be less secure than most users would hope. If that concerns you, a virtual private network — aka a VPN — is a decent solution. Check out a few of the best VPN services on the market.
Computing

Want to make calls across the internet for less? Try these great VOIP services

Voice over IP services are getting more and more popular, but there are still a few that stand above the pack. In this guide, we'll give you a few options for the best VOIP services for home and business users.