/ Technology

What happens to our digital lives after death?

Our online identities grow every day, but when we leave this life, what happens to the online ghost we leave behind? Should we leave a digital legacy to our loved ones, and if so, is it worth paying for this privilege?

Every minute 48 hours of video is uploaded to YouTube. Every day, 200 million tweets are tweeted. Every month 7.5 billion photos are posted on Facebook. Where does it all go when we pass on?

It certainly doesn’t die with us, although many might wish it did. When living, it’s difficult to eradicate yourself from Facebook completely. But after death Facebook allows pages to either be shut down or “memorialised”. This turns the page into a form of shrine where friends can share memories.

But what about everything else we leave online: the emails stored in our webmail accounts and our photos saved in the cloud? Should they die with us, or should we pass them on for someone else to enjoy?

Data worth passing on?

It’s a bit like the contents of someone’s loft when they’ve passed away. It seems a shame to destroy all the documents hoarded over the years, but few are ever likely to be worth holding on to.

So what are our options? Do we part with our passwords on our deathbeds, or do we write them into our wills? The former isn’t exactly what most of us would like our final words to be, and the latter is hardly a viable solution if our passwords are regularly updated.

A service called iCroak has offered a solution, where cloud-based personal information is stored privately during life, and then handed on to a single nominated guardian after death.

The £10-a-year service allows information to be fragmented into that which is passed on and that which remains forever private, even after your death. But, as far as I’m concerned, there’s little value in passing anything digital on, and I’m yet to be sold on the service’s benefits.

Data after death

The computing data company Rackspace has calculated that a quarter of us have around £200 worth of data saved in the cloud, which seems like an awful lot to me. Even if I uploaded all my photos to the cloud, I’m not sure anyone would value them at £200. Perhaps the estimation includes the value of downloaded films and music, but would anyone be interested in inheriting their nearest and dearest’s iTunes library?

Some could argue that access to emails might help tie up loose ends – such as memberships, bill payments and correspondence, but I wouldn’t wish the barrage of junk mail I receive on my worst enemy, let alone my loved ones.

And while it would be a treat to come across handwritten 50-year-old love letters between my grandparents, I don’t think a “love email” would hold the same sentimental value.

In the modern world we need to think about our virtual identities almost as much as our physical lives, and as more and more of us become connected, these online lives are only going to grow. It’s already changed the way we look at our lives and it’s beginning to change the way we look at death. I don’t think, however, that questions surrounding my Facebook profile or my Amazon wish list will bother me or my family too much when my time comes.


I personally believe nothing like photos,videos, Should ever be deleted, As it shows history & How the world around us can change.

If I die, I don’t want any of My data removed or destroyed, But I don’t want anyone pretending to be Me if I die & Making out I am still alive.

History should never be deleted, Imagen how cool it would have been to have the past like 1066 o computers,videos,digital photos, & More, & So many other past dates & historical events.

This is a really interesting question, and I’m not sure what the answer should be – who should I give my data to? My relatives? What if there are things there I don’t want them to see? I think in this situation a lot of people would opt to have all the data deleted rather than have their loved ones finding potentially embarassing or upsetting things.

On the other hand, if it came to other people I couldn’t bear for important things to be destroyed. When my parents pass away I’d like to keep all of their photos, etc safe as they’re valuable memories – which these days we never bother to have printed.

So I suppose my answer is that I don’t want anyone rooting through my stuff, but I’m nostalgic enough to want to root through theirs. I might need to reassess my opinions on this =)

I have always kept my affairs in order to make it easy for people to deal with things after my demise but it is amazing how much nowadays only exists in digital form. The traditional way of dealing with someone’s estate was to see what the post brought each day – you could soon discover what savings, investments, shareholdings, insurance policies, credit cards, memberships and subscriptions were still current and who supplied the electricity, gas and other utilities. This is no longer the case as more and more stuff is done on-line only. I can see no alternative to making lists of passwords, log-in ID’s, policy numbers, account details, and so forth, and leaving them in a sealed envelope with my will. In these days of money-laundering regulations, anti-terrorism precautions and fraud prevention laws, accounts will be suspended and funds frozen in an instant at the very mention of death; it is therefore also necessary to leave a useful sum of money accessible to one’s personal representative so that day-to-day affairs can continue without causing serious problems.
Photos and other mementoes are an interesting question. Perhaps it is a good idea to get all the important ones printed, labelled and dated – if they’re not worth that much effort then maybe they don’t need to be kept for long. Same with e-mails – if they’re likely to have lasting importance they need to be printed off. It’s no good hoping people are going to wander round the clouds digging out your stuff any more than they would want to wade through the miscellaneous contents of a pile of boxes in the loft or in a storage unit somewhere. The basic problem with data in electronic form is volume; it is far too easy to keep everything indiscriminately. I appreciate what Scott Reynolds is saying about his photos and data not being interfered with so they can be kept for posterity and be mined by future historians in order to make some sense of life in the twenty-first century. I have a feeling that we know more about the eleventh century because of physical archives like the Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday Book than people will about this era in five hundred years’ time because the vital evidence will be buried under a vast overburden of insignificant detail. On the other hand we might wish to live in hope that ever more powerful search engines will be deployed to crack it . . . and expose the utter futility of this pathetic post.

Friends are avid users of iphones, ipads, etc, where all information (read: stuff) is gathered, accessed and stored in “server land” – for a monthly fee
The world of technology is purposely moving us all away from having actual things in our hands that are physical, for the sole purpose of increasing profits. In effect most people merely rent a space to store their “stuff”

So perhaps the answer is staring us in the face?

You had a mobile phone, on that phone were also your pictures. In recent years, that phone memory was in your hand, it was physical, you can take out a memory card or plug in a lead and store your pictures on a hard drive, via your laptop/PC.
Again, your laptop/PC are yours, in your hand, you own them, once purchased, no more needs to be paid to use them.
Now move on to recent times, “smart phones” and the like. Instant access to social media websites, making it easy to upload your pictures.
Your notepad now has to use (read: rent) server space, as its now more of a terminal to access a company’s servers.

A relative has little or no chance of obtaining your pictures from a server, as has been said, once your demise has been noted, accounts close down. Your banking cannot be accessed, your billing will more than likely be unobtainable, that’s providing that those managing your estate have the first idea which companies you were involved with.
What is to stop facebook or a company belonging to them, selling your pictures of buses decades down the line?
Do they take legal ownership of your pictures?

A good way to protect your personal things would be not to give them away so easily in the first place.
Store them on your own hardware instead of in server land. Your family can turn on your laptop/PC and instantly open files, all it would take would be one password left in a will?

You raise a very interesting topic, which reminds me, of how technology wants us to pay for things that we can no longer actually hold in our hands.
When I go, who would get my £500 of tunes stored on my ipad or would they just be wiped along with my account?
In 40 years, will there be anything real actually left that we can hand down to our children?

Magnus says:
27 October 2011

Photos are a tiny part of what we have online, banking, gambling, shopping, gaming, intellectual propety, sentimental property are all things that I want to be able to hand down. I have phtsical money in several online accounts and the people who I want to recieve it should.

@frugal ways – storing it locally is great, unless of course your machine crashes and the data is lost, or you need to access your passwords while you are away from home

Pictures can easily be stored on an external hard drive, which can be fitted to any computer both now and in the future.
If you store them via a business’ servers, ie, social media, apple, etc, access to them is dependant upon the company controlling the server via passwords, plus any costs involved for the upkeep. If the upkeep fees have not been paid as you are not alive to do so, how do you get them back to your loved ones and ensure that they are removed and not just copied, from the company?

There is a wonderful website called francis frith, which displays old pictures. Copyright pictures which are very valuable to their owner, what is to stop companies holding your pictures and using them in future?

Having a bank account which generates a statement, where the bank has an actual branch, again is a material thing, something you can actually touch, go into and speak to, with statements that are delivered, again something real. If I stored my pictures and banked this way, I wouldn’t need to access my passwords whilst I was away from home and neither would my family when I passed away?

suzannah herbert says:
28 October 2011

Gradually, and when I have time, I put photos on discs as a record. Otherwise I have to agree with John Ward that, just as one makes a will, information on passwords, policy documents etc has to be in a sealed envelope along with the will i.e part of the same process. Hard, time consuming but will save massive problems for sucessors.

Perhaps the virtual world is the only way to allow us to continue a fragmentary existence in the real world, after we have become ashes and dust.

This is certainly an interetsing topic and clearly one what will become an issue over time as we will all face death and have various accounts with usernames & passwords and a variety of contents online. Online service providers should plan some proceedures for dealing with users who have passed away. I think we are probably going to have to face the day where we have some common managed central online ID which we can then link to various services – then at least the closing down process should be easier.

You are absolutely right. It is about time that there was a standard approach to what is a growing problem.

Paper records last a thousand years or more. I wonder who is say 200 years will be able to read current digital formats apart from a few academics, such as those who read Sanskrit now

Computer technology should be capable of decoding digital formats and that could happen soon because the problem already exists. The short life of recordable CDs and DVDs is well known.

A greater problem could be the longevity of storage devices and being able to extricate the digital data for decoding.

iCroak says:
1 November 2011


The guys at Which Conversation asked me to pop in a reply as to why a service (like iCroak) would be worth anyone’s while – Basically my ramblings are below

First off, I thought it was a great piece and some interesting questions and thoughts are raised
Nikki Whitman raises an interesting point “What if there are things there I don’t want them to see?” iCroak has the option that if the asset record is not bequeathed to anyone it will be deleted on your passing

iCroak was formed to meet a need as with any service. I live my life digitally and I am finding it harder to keep my usernames and password in order. It’s very unwise to use the same or similar password and secondly more and more services require a password change at intervals. Secondly it’s not just at home that I need to login into various accounts so that scotched the idea of keeping them on my PC at home. Keeping them nice and handy on my BlackBerry or other mobile device did not seem a wise course either.

Why do I care if my web presence goes with me when I die, for that matter why does anyone? Personally I have value on the web and by that I mean hard currency and other less tangible assets, but all I deem to have some import to others. For example my monies in PayPal, National Lottery, Skype, money earned from affiliate programs, adsense, William Hill, or others – why when I shuffle off should these funds be left unclaimed? Should I let the web domains expire, should I let all of my social comment and images disappear – These are my diary and my legacy, to be enjoyed by children and others.

One of the most important things about iCroak is that it serves for your guardians as a focal point a centralised place where they can at least KNOW that these assets are in existence, they can then be dealt with one at a time, kept, deleted, recovered or sold

I guess I could write everything in my will – how much will it cost me to keep it updated? I could keep it on my PC – I must make a note of where the file is and what it’s called, plus the password for it. Of course my heirs will need to login using my login credentials as the file will not be readily there under their own – I guess I need to update my will each time I change my PC’s login, I must back my PC up as well, do you?

To me a service of £10.00 or £15.00 a year to give me some piece of mind, organise and focus my digital life and be able to pass it on is very reasonable

I hope you don’t minding me adding my two cents


Is your “service” designed to be used daily, instead of a home PC or a mobile device?

If so, what happens if you are logging on at an internet cafe and someone scans your iCroak username and password?
Won’t this negate all the usernames and passwords you are trying to protect in the first place?
Is it safe to group all different website log ins in one place using one username and password?
Surely this would increase the security risk considerably?

I’d still prefer that control was on my own device, such as a removable hard drive or PC. It would be more secure and far cheaper in the long run.

iCroak says:
2 November 2011


The service can of course be used daily, however your most frequently used passwords you remember, it’s the ones you don’t use so often that you may need help with and will need to check. Don’t forget the primary focus of iCroak is to be able to pass all of your asset information across to another person.

As for the internet café scenario – you take care when using your card at a dispenser to make sure no-one see you PIN, it’s the same idea and having a complex password for your iCroak account will make it less likely to be noted

Question for you, what makes you think your PC is more secure?

The idea is not for everyone, that’s fine, but for many it is.


I’m trying to get my head around your service.

You highlighted that it’s not just at home that you need to login into various accounts so that scotched the idea of keeping them on your PC.
Keeping them handy on your BlackBerry or other mobile device did not seem a wise course either.
Then you listed things you needed user/password for, which I would assume you use at least once a month?
I have no idea what relevance this scenario has got to do with the service you are providing (sorry I am a bit numb sometimes)

Is my PC more secure?
I would say yes.
Using a PC to store the info, it would have to be a specific attack against my computer, even then, it would depend on my clumsy actions before an attack could go ahead.
On iCroak servers, as with any server, it is always online/switched on, there is the potential for a hacker to get thousands of usernames/passwords of sensitive personal information.
By definition, this makes your servers a far bigger target and less secure than my preferred option.

If I use my removable hard drive, which is not always switched on, a thief would have to physically break into my house, then decode the username and password, then find the information.
Personally, I prefer to do things for myself using good old common sense. It’s safer, it’s cheaper and I have control.

Good luck.

I am not the only one who thought that BlackBerry shot themselves in the foot by launching a product called the PlayBook. That has probably damaged their reputation as a supplier of phones to business users.

Sorry, but I am not going to subscribe to a service called iCroak. For me, strange names don’t appeal when involving money or security is involved. I did open a Smile account, but only because that is owned by a well known bank.

I love the ingenuity of companies in creating distinctive products and names, but just not when there is a serious purpose.

iCroak says:
3 November 2011

Names are always interesting and iCroak is one of them. Its a bit like Marmite, you either love it or hate, but you remember it.

Yes your PC is not always on and yes a service is a larger target, however it is run by professionals, it is subjected to penetration testing, traffic is encrypted and it meets meets the highest published government standards

At the end of the day iCroak is an option for folk to use or not, however it’s always good to have options. I’m sure Sarkozy and Merkel would like to have more

Cheers paul

Good point about memorable names Paul.

This Conversation has certainly provided food for thought. Organisations insist that we do not pass on passwords, often recommend that we change them from time to time and give no thought to the fact that we may become incapable of managing accounts due to old age or death.

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