An increasing issue: dead cyberspace accounts

By Phil Youngblood

Two giants of computing died recently – Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. and Dennis Ritchie, inventor of the Unix operating system and C programming language.

Many people have commented about how they heard of Jobs’ death on a device he invented. I eulogized him in two of my UIW classes for the benefit of those not of the vintage to remember all of his contributions. Then I heard of Ritchie’s death in Second Life from the Science Center group to which I belong and I realized the memories of both of these men are recorded forever in cyberspace. But what becomes of their virtual personae? What happens to their virtual assets?

This year I am writing a series of articles about virtual environments, which I have defined as any technology that enables us to communicate other than face-to-face, in-person. In this article, you will see the sensitive but all-too-real issue of what happens to our online accounts and assets when we die. When I visit Facebook, I am invited to send a message to my Facebook friends, including Jim Partlett, former UIW CIO who also died prematurely not long ago. This morning I discovered he is no longer on my friends list and I know I did not do this because I have not had the heart to de-friend him just because he can no longer respond to my posts. But his account is still there.

Back in 2009, Max Kelly of Facebook had a good friend die and Facebook created a policy for memorializing profiles. When someone dies and they receive proof, they remove sensitive contact information and adjust their Privacy settings so only confirmed Friends can access their profile and share memories of them. If you have a Facebook friend that has passed, you can report this at http://www.facebook.com/help/contact.php?show_form=deceased.

This is not just an obscure and morbid subject but a real business issue. How many people out there only exist in cyberspace, whose accounts take up server space, who can no longer view advertisements? A recent study of Facebook demographics indicated in 2010 the people behind 1-1.5 million Facebook accounts alone are no longer active in this world and that number is expected to be 50 million by 2015.

What of bank accounts with passwords? What about automatically renewable online subscriptions? What of virtual assets such as music, videos, family photos, and important files locked behind walls of virtual security? What happens to those assets if the websites they are on pass away? San Antonio’s Rackspace collaborated in a study with a university in the UK to find the British alone have the equivalent of $3.5 billion in online assets. Second Life assets worldwide total in the $100 millions.

Capitalism abhors an unexploited niche as much as nature abhors a vacuum, so entrepreneurs have founded sites to take care of your virtual assets. But, you might argue, why could I not just put this information in my will? Well, would you want your passwords in a public will? Would you want to have to update your will every time you update your passwords (you do update your passwords, yes?)? And giving the information to an executor implies a lot of great deal of trust beyond just disposing of your stuff. So companies such as http://1000memories.com/ provide a space to share photo memories of family and friends and http://entrustet.com/ specializes in virtual estate planning (here you can designate a digital executor, death must be verified by certificate, passwords are encrypted, and they set aside money to run their servers for two years even if they go out of business). Others include http://legacylocker.com/ and http://www.datainherit.com. My current favorite is iCroak (seriously) at http://www.icroak.com/ that approaches the subject in a very straightforward manner.

This is the sixth article in this series. This year I have written about the impact of social media, thinking and writing in 140 characters or less, what I have learned from live and virtual birds, and have compared face-to-face with virtual interactions. As always, I invite your feedback and dialogue.

 

E-mail Youngblood, head of UIW’s Computer Information Systems (CIS) program, at youngblo@uiwtx.eduHe welcomes your inputs or comments at youngblo@uiwtx.edu

 

Phil Youngblood

 

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