How to avoid Digital Immortality

Paul Robert 9 November 2021

Now is the time to organise your online life, here's how

“Do you have her password for Facebook?” My sister, Louise, looked across the table from behind our mother’s iPad, while I leafed through a tiny notebook full of scribbled telephone numbers, addresses, and an occasional user ID and password. 

“Nope,” I said. “Nothing here.” Only the day before, our nonagenarian mother, Miep, had passed away peacefully. Louise and I, still numb, found ourselves in her apartment in Purmerend, near Amsterdam, going through the next steps—cards, funeral arrangements—and trying to erase what made up her digital footprint. 

She didn’t have a huge online presence; insecure about the digital world, Mum had really only played Wordfeud with us, read the news, checked local shops for their weekly offers, and sent e-mails to her friends and family. She had a Facebook account only to keep up on family news. Her few online activities were recorded in the tiny notebook that my late father had started 20 years ago.

But Mum didn’t really grasp the difference between a URL, a user ID, and a password, and the booklet was as enlightening as a collection of hieroglyphs. 

"Her few online activities were recorded in the tiny notebook that my late father had started 20 years ago"

We ended up logging into Facebook from my laptop, using Mum’s user ID and clicking “forgotten password?” This allowed us to then reset the password through her e-mail account, log in to Facebook, and go through the several steps (“are you sure?” “are you really sure?” “are you really, really sure?”) to permanently delete her account. 

It was an important lesson to my sister and me. “When I get home, I’m going to make a list of all my accounts,” said Louise. “If something should happen to me, my daughter wouldn’t be able to find them.”

A couple of weeks later I decided to streamline my own list of passwords, which I keep organised in an online vault accessed through an app on my phone that requires just one master password. Though I have never had social media accounts, I had 140 online IDs—for retailers, the gym, web-hosting services, e-mail accounts, my bank, insurance companies, credit cards, and more. Even though they’re all in one place, if my wife, who knows my master password, ever has to sort through the “vault” it would be a herculean task. Yet I am the exception to the rule: most people have not organised their digital access information. 

“It is sad, but hardly anyone thinks about taking care of their digital footprint,” says Wil-Jan Dona, 75, a retired telecom project manager who now volunteers for a Dutch organisation called SeniorWeb, where he gives seminars on this subject. “Many older people have at least a Facebook and a WhatsApp account, but when I ask them what they do with their passwords, most often they reply: ‘I don’t know, my grandchild set it up.’” 

It’s not an issue only for the elderly, says Dona. “I had a middle-aged friend who owned a small business. I’ll call him John. He had ongoing projects with clients when he was diagnosed with cancer. It was aggressive and he died soon after.” After the funeral one of John’s clients called his wife. “They were very understanding,” says Dona, “but there were files on John’s laptop that they urgently needed.

His wife didn’t have access. Then other clients started calling.” In despair, she turned to Dona, who managed to unlock the laptop. “It ended well, but it caused her a lot of stress on top of the grief,” he says. “And then we still needed to handle his personal accounts.” 

On the laptop these were easy to close and remove, but his iPhone, which was full of photos that his widow wanted to retrieve, presented an even bigger technical problem: Apple phones in particular are 
all but impossible to access if you don’t have the password or the owner’s thumbprint. 

“Only the police have the software tools to access some of these phones, and they were willing to help,” says Dona. But that’s not something you can count on.

"The more active you are online, the more there is at stake"

The more active you are online, the more there is at stake. How about the photos you uploaded to Flickr? What if you leave behind years’ worth of activities, comments, and tweets on social media? They will not disappear with you, and if you don’t prepare—by making your passwords available to your loved ones so that they can close your account when you pass away—those posts will remain public. 

Many of us will eventually become digitally immortal, virtual ghosts. Only when your loved ones close your accounts will your old posts be deleted. 

“You have to decide what you want to do with your digital footprint. It is no different from making sure that the right thing happens with your money,” says Dona. 

Even that is nobody’s favourite activity: many Europeans do not even have a registered will and testament. Because these are not centrally registered, figures are scarce, but in Germany, for instance, a 2018 survey by Deutsche Bank estimated that less than 40 per cent of adults have a last will. That means that most people leave decisions about their heritage to local legislation.

Our digital footprint is even further from our minds, and there is no EU-wide legislation in this field to help our heirs (in fact, the United States is one of the few countries to have introduced a law to exclusively address the handling of digital legacies). But technological developments force us to think about what will happen to “us” if we don’t take steps to choose for ourselves.

It’s now possible to bring loved ones “back to life” with apps that animate photos. In years to come, who knows what it will be possible to do with our images and our voices? I know that I wouldn’t want my virtual persona to survive. 

Two days before she died, Mum wisely told my daughter: “Don’t worry. It will be hard for you for a while, but after that there’ll just be happy memories.” That’s all I need and all I hope to leave behind: a photograph and the happy memories.

Read more: Engelbert Humperdinck: I Remember

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