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Online records: Who really owns your digital legacy?

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Elaine Hughes holding a picture of her late son Darren

Elaine Hughes holding a picture of her late son Darren

Darren Hughes Gibson

Darren Hughes Gibson

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Elaine Hughes holding a picture of her late son Darren

When the Dublin teenager Darren Hughes-Gibson committed suicide two years ago, his mother become convinced that he had been the victim of cyberbullying. She found a series of "horrific" and "threatening" messages on his phone.

On the first day of the inquest into his death last September, Darren's mother told the coroner that her son may have received a series of abusive messages on Facebook that were subsequently deleted.

Despite numerous requests from gardai to turn over Darren's records, the social networking giant has refused to comply.

When the inquest into his death resumed earlier this month, Ms Hughes pleaded with Facebook to show compassion and release his records to the Dublin coroner.

"For a bit of justice for him, if they could please, please release them to the Coroner's Court," she said. "I do not feel that there has been a full investigation. Please God nobody else has to go through what we have had to go through as a family."

The tragedy of Darren's death – and the saga that has followed it – is just one of a growing stream of cases that have drawn attention to the question of what happens to our digital lives after we die. When Toronto teenager Alison Atkins lost her battle with cancer, her sister Jaclyn got a hacker to break into the range of email and social networking accounts that she had relied upon when her illness confined her to home.

Jaclyn thought that she had neatly sidestepped all the problems that Darren Hughes-Gibson's mother had run into. But all of these online services usually have detailed terms and conditions, many of which forbid anyone but the account owner from accessing them. Actually hacking into the accounts is, of course, a major violation of those terms, and, one by one, Jaclyn found herself locked out of her dead sister's internet accounts.

Elana Kehoe considers herself one of the lucky ones. She describes her husband Brendan as "the original computer geek". "I can find posts of his online from 1991," she says, "and if I worked, I could probably go back to the 80s. The book he wrote, Zen and the Art of the Internet, was the first mass published book on the subject, and it went to four editions."

Brendan was born in Dublin, but moved to the US when he was four. He returned to Ireland in his thirties with Elana and their two sons. He was diagnosed with leukaemia in March, 2011 and after a short illness, he died that July.

A couple of months earlier, Brendan logged onto the couple's home computer from the hospital and left his password file there for Elana to find. This simple act, it would turn out afterwards, became hugely significant in helping her to pick up the pieces after his death.

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"I have read stories online about people who have died, and their families want access to their email, Facebook or Twitter, and legally a lot of these companies can't give it to them if they don't have the password," Elana says.

Because such a great deal of Brendan's life was lived online, that's where most of his legacy lies. If he had died without passing on his passwords, security questions, logins and so on, gaining access to it would have become hugely involved, if not practically impossible.

All of the major social networks and email providers invoke standard procedures when a member dies. If you show up without a password, seeking access to a deceased loved one's account, there is no guarantee that you will be granted it.

Solicitor and digital rights expert Simon McGarr believes that the best way of avoiding conflict and uncertainty after you've gone is to leave the information with someone; to make, effectively, a digital will.

"Because these companies can be very difficult to deal with, by far the easiest thing to do is to leave behind passwords as part of the will," he tells me. "That way, people can make all the necessary changes from inside their account as opposed to knocking on the door."

The difficulty here, of course, is that in order to keep security tight, we're always encouraged to change our passwords frequently.

Does that mean that we should continually update not only our passwords, but the list of passwords lodged with our solicitor?

McGarr advises using a password-generating programme. You only have to remember one to get into the programme in the first place, then you simply leave that password with someone you trust.

But who owns this information? "There's no difference between your digital assets and any other form of assets as far as the estate is concerned," says McGarr.

Your passwords, your accounts, documents, photos and any archives that are floating around in the cloud are as much part of your estate as your computer, your car and your house, regardless of what the internet giants say. But as the Hughes and Atkins families have found, proving that may not be easy.

Elana's first piece of advice is to back everything up. Her second is to send someone your password file, making sure that the people who need access to it know who has it. "And for heaven's sake, have the conversation now," she says. "Have a will, even just scrawled on a piece of paper, until you can get to a solicitor. Have this stuff planned. It's horrific to go through your partner's death, but on top of it, having to do simple things like try to get their email password? Insult to injury. Just do it.

"Having the discussion now does not bring death or illness on someone. Having the discussion now means that you care enough about the person to try to ease their living hell once you've gone. That you love them enough to worry about them later. Horrible things happen to people each day, and I truly don't want to watch people have to swim through this mire."

PROTECTING YOUR PAST 5 KEY SITES

Deadmansswitch.net

A posthumous email service. Create an account, then log in and set up the emails which will be sent out after you die. You log in regularly to let them know you have not died yet. If you fail to log in after three email reminders, the messages are released.

Lifenaut.com

This service allows you to create an interactive avatar. You upload all kinds of biographical content, from pictures to videos and documents, to build "a digital archive that will be preserved for generations". The idea is to replicate yourself in digital form. To complete the exercise, you also send them a DNA sample, which will be frozen and "stored for eternity".

1000memories.com

This website allows you to create memorial web pages and then invite friends of the deceased person to share photos and stories.

Afternote.com

Afternote sets out to digitally bridge the gap between life and death. It allows you to build a bucket list and even create a personal timeline, which is much like the online equivalent of a shoebox stuffed with photographs and the usual memorabilia. You can also leave your passwords and messages behind for your loved ones, log any instructions to your family and arrange what should happen to your social media accounts after you have died.

Thedigitalbeyond.com

A one-stop portal for end-of-life digital services. Here you'll find an alphabetical list of everything from storage sites and final message services, to a range of memorial-making sites.


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