Big questions: What happens to your digital assets when you die?

Young person sitting on floor with balancing an open laptop.

For millions of Australians their real-world existence is now inextricably linked to their digital lives – and there will be no putting the genie back into the bottle. We’re all building a portfolio of digital assets, increasingly being driven online by businesses, community groups, government agencies and social media companies.

Connection, comment, convenience. The online world is how we do business, stay in touch with family and friends, shop, get information, manage the household. There’s not much we do day-to-day which can’t now be done online.

But have you given any thought to what might happen to your growing bundle of digital assets in the event of your ultimate demise? What would you like done with your online accounts? How would you like to be remembered? And who will tidy up your online ‘estate’?

When we think of our online presence we think of the biggies: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google. What about all the other accounts and passwords you have? Take a moment. Medical organisations, insurance companies, government agencies (myGov, local councils). Utility companies. Phone accounts. Superannuation accounts. That’s not even scratching the surface – think gym memberships, store loyalty programs, apps. Have a look at your inbox. Guaranteed you’ll have an account for every company that has sent you an email in the last 12 months.

What happens to all of this when you die?

The answer, at the moment, seems to be one of the following.

a. Absolutely nothing.
b. A little something.
c. Nobody knows.
d. Few people care.
e. All of the above.

Opening up the Pandora’s Box of digital assets

Yeslam Al-Saggaf is an Associate Professor of Information Technology at Charles Sturt University. His research interests lie in the areas of social media and ethics in computing. The intriguing matter of managing a person’s digital legacy first piqued his attention in 2014, when it was raised at an international conference.

“But since then there doesn’t seem to be much research out there on it.

“ The digital afterlife is not something we have really looked at yet. Only a few platforms have contingencies in place, and laws have always played catch-up with technology.”

Looking at the digital world, Yeslam says there is not a lot which has been nutted out in terms of a uniform approach to a person’s online estate (or digital assets). The practicalities and legalities of finalising an online life remain largely undefined as the world tries frantically to get in step with a rapidly changing, technologically driven landscape.

While Facebook, Google and Messenger have begun to tackle the issue of handling digital assets, overall the topic appears to be a Pandora’s Box.

“And it’s about time other companies started to look at measures to take because, very soon, doing so will start to add value to their service (from a customer’s point of view).

“Think of it this way – your online presence is like your soul. It just doesn’t die. Individuals need to start to think about that, too. Online equals permanency.”

Be prepared and consider those left behind

Even if you don’t care about your online assets once you’re no longer around, you probably should, A/Prof Al-Saggaf suggests – for no other reason than consideration of those left behind.

“We know there are a lot of digital elements which will be important to loved ones after someone’s death. The obvious are their feed, photos and comments. But there is so much yet to be considered. Though you are gone, you may want to acknowledge that your loved ones can be affected by things online and realise that your data – if left unprotected – may be used and abused, such as cases of stolen identity.

Head shot image of Associate Professor   Yeslam Al-Saggaf

“We also need to think about it from a philosophical point of view. It is a matter of human dignity. We need to deal with the issue sensitively.

“And then there’s the legal point of view. The dead have no rights in terms of privacy or choice. As such, you should consider making your wishes known and taking care of your interests while you’re alive.

“In just the same way we organise how to distribute our financial assets by developing a will and talk to our friends and family about how we would like to be remembered, we should now start to consider how to take care of our online life. It’s important because you don’t want to leave it until it’s too late or bequeath a red-tape mess for your family to fix.”

A welcome review

The issue of digital assets is growing so rapidly that the New South Wales Government recently announced a review of laws relating to the topic.

Mark Speakman, the NSW Attorney General, confirmed that retired Federal Court judge Hon Dr Annabelle Bennett AC SC will head the charge as a part-time Commissioner of the Law Reform Commission.

“Dr Bennett will look into laws around access to people’s social media accounts and other digital assets after they die or become incapacitated.

“In today’s hyper-connected world, an unprecedented amount of work and socialising occurs online, yet few of us consider what happens to our digital assets once we’re gone or are no longer able to make decisions.

“This is leading to confusion and complexity as family, friends and lawyers are left to untangle digital asset ownership issues, applying laws that were developed long before the arrival of email, blogs, social media and cryptocurrency. Dr Bennett will consider whether we need new legislation to deal with this 21st century problem. [She’ll] also look closely at whether additional privacy protections are needed in situations where a person hasn’t made arrangements for anyone to take control of their social media or private emails.

“There’s no uniformity in the way social networking sites are addressing this issue. Some allow for an account to be memorialised or handed over to an administrator, while others will close the account.”

Simple steps you can take now

While A/Prof Al-Saggaf welcomed this review, he believes there are some steps we should all now be considering.

Educate yourself

Find out what options are available from the digital entities you use. Can you deactivate, immortalise or close an account? What steps can you take to ensure this can be done by those you leave behind? Determine what accounts, other than social media, your family would likely need to access after your death. Which are likely to be useful to those in charge of your estate? Think government accounts, financial accounts, health records, business accounts or apps.

Make a decision

Decide what options you want to pick up and how you’d like your online presence to be dealt with after your death.

Speak about it

Chat with your family and/or friends to ensure you are all on the same digital page.

Safe storage

Gather all your relevant account names, passwords and security questions. Then decide how to securely store the information. Digital directories are starting to emerge (where you list your social media accounts, but not passwords, and note how you’d like the account handled when you die). And start-up companies aiming to address digital asset information storage are already emerging.  

“These steps will help give your loved one the best chance of acting on your behalf and in your best interests. Including a clause in your will is also worth a thought, and it is likely to become increasingly popular in the future.”

And if you believe that applications like Facebook will go the way of the beta cassette, you may be correct, but not off the digital legacy hook, A/Prof Al-Saggaf said.

He says the conundrum of how to organise your digital assets, who will be responsible and how it’ll work in practical and legal terms will just be transferred to the next technological force – the Next Big Thing. No doubt to platforms we can’t yet conceive of and for uses we’re yet to fathom. So, it’s best to be prepared.

Keen to launch your career into the future?

If you’re excited about the possibilities an online future will bring and want to play a part in shaping our digital lives, Charles Sturt University can turn your passion into a rewarding career.

From cloud computing to games programming and cyber security to business computing, you could make a big difference to how we live in a digital world. See which information technology, computing and mathematics courses inspire you.

And if you want to come and talk through your options, there’s no better time than Open Day. Meet academics and students, get course info, and see what’s possible at Charles Sturt.

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