TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Chances are that you have hundreds, maybe thousands of emails stored on your remote servers, or in your computer. You might have a Facebook page or a MySpace or Twitter account. And you might have countless photos in a Flickr album. All that stuff amounts to a digital profile, of sorts, which raises an interesting question: What happens to that material when we die? Do our families get access to our email, precious photos or financial data? Are there some things that we prefer that nobody see?
Our next guests, Evan Carroll and John Romano, are two technology experts who focused for the past couple of years on this very issue. They've founded an online resource called thedigitalbeyond.com, and they've written a new book with practical advice called "Your Digital Afterlife."
They spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies.
DAVE DAVIES: Well, John Romano and Evan Carroll, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Our digital assets, or our identity or whatever we want to call it, exists partly in computers that we own in our homes, but much of it exists in servers elsewhere, right? I mean, email services, Facebook, MySpace. Do these online service providers have a procedure for handling the death of a subscriber?
Mr. JOHN ROMANO (Co-author, "Your Digital Afterlife"): Some of these services do have particular procedures. Some of you may have Twitter accounts and, upon request, with the appropriate documentation, Twitter will share an archive of your public tweets with a next of kin, and then disable your account if they so choose.
But some service providers take a more harsh stance and say that in order to protect the privacy of the deceased, that they won't provide access to anyone, no matter what kind of documentation they may have.
If I may go into a story here, in 2004, a U.S. Marine, Justin Ellsworth was killed in action, and he left behind a Yahoo email account. And his father, John Ellsworth, wanted to make a scrapbook of the many supportive emails that his son had received during his time in service.
Unfortunately, Yahoo's terms of service actually prevented him from gaining access to that information. So later, he actually filed in court to have an order placed through Yahoo to provide that information, and he was actually successful. But in Yahoo's terms of service, it does say that your accounts are nontransferable and have no right of survivorship.
Mr. EVAN CARROLL (Co-author, "Your Digital Afterlife"): To further that, there's also no standardization right now, and this is kind of against the interest of all the users out there. There's no one way that all these service providers act. So Yahoo has their policy. Facebook has their policy. Twitter has another policy, and none of the policies are the same, which makes a really confusing for the average person to try to figure all this out.
DAVIES: So in the book, you give us some instructions. And you say that one thing we should do is to name a digital executor, roughly akin to the executor of our will. Is a digital executor, I mean, is that a power that's recognized in law? How do you do that?
Mr. RAMONO: So, a digital executor, unless you name them as a sort of a co-executor of your state, they don't necessarily have full legal authority. But the reason we use this terminology is because it's very possible that the person who is handling your estate - say, for instance, it's a spouse - may not be the person who has the technical understanding to take care of your digital things. And we think there's a - needs to be an important distinction there.
Oklahoma passed a law which gives the executor of an estate legal authority to access digital accounts belonging to the decedent, and this - but we're still waiting on some of our contacts in the legal profession to provide us with some clarification of this, but this could provide some new groundwork for legal recognition of this role.
DAVIES: So if I'm hearing you right, that would mean the executor of your estate is, in effect, also the digital executor?
Mr. RAMONO: In the way we talk about it, yes, that would be so. But I could see situations where you may want to provide in your wishes that you tell your executor you have the legal authority to do this, but I would like for you to make sure that this individual does these other things for me, because they may be more suited for that task.
DAVIES: Right. Now, you suggest that we take an inventory of our data and then provide some specific instructions on what the digital executor should do with that data in the event that we die. Give us an example of what would be in this inventory and some of the kinds of options in terms of instructions.
Mr. CARROLL: I think when someone starts their inventory, one of the things you need to remember is that it doesn't have to be absolutely 100 percent exhaustive. I think what's most - what people need to concentrate on is the most important things in their life. Online, if you're using Flickr, let's say, to hold all your photographs and all those photographs are very important to you, make sure that that is going to be part of your inventory.
I think people might get lost or bogged down or realize, oh, my goodness. If I have to put every single online account, I'll be here till tomorrow writing them all down. But you can start simply by just taking the most important things to you - the things that you wouldn't want lost or you - things that you wouldn't want to be forgotten or disregarded, and put them in your inventory first.
But your inventory, really, is just a list. It's a simple list that has, you know, the name of the object - this is my Flickr account - and it has ways to access that account. So it has your username and your password, and it has your wishes for it: What do you want to happen to that asset after you're gone? So if it's your Flickr account and you want to say, hey, I'd like this account to be given to my child or, you know, my loved one, then specific that in your wishes.
Mr. RAMONO: But you should be careful, because Flickr is, indeed, owned by Yahoo, and the contents of your Yahoo account is quote, "nontransferable." So you may want to take steps to download the content of that account and make sure that you can legally pass that content to your son, for instance.
Mr. CARROLL: Right. I mean, strangely enough, it's - the - actually passing on to somebody potentially could be a breach of your terms of service, in of itself, just trying to give somebody else that password. So they might have legal rights to delete it just by you doing that. It gets a little bit tricky. But at this point, providing that access is so much better than the risk of not providing that access at all and having that potentially go away altogether.
DAVIES: Right. Well, now, this raises an interesting situation, here. I mean, suppose what's at issue is data - like photos - that are on an account that is nontransferable. If you instruct your surviving spouse or child to, in effect, violate the terms of service and download the stuff so they have access to it, is that something you'd recommend?
Mr. RAMONO: You know, I never want to recommend that someone violates a contract that they have executed, and I will say that I'm not an attorney, so - nor can I provide that advice. However, it's worth saying that as it stands right now, this is the only means by which you can provide access to those accounts.
Now, with the Flickr example, it's worth saying that many Flickr photographs are sort of public information in that they can - you know, any Flickr user can go view them, and for those accounts, it might be easy to download those. But you do have - there are cases where some Flickr photos are private, and those may be the ones you want to share.
The lawyers we've worked with in reviewing our book have recommended that they feel accessing this information with your permission is, as far as legal structures go, akin to having an executor on execute on your wishes. So they believe it's sort of in the spirit of the law by doing that. So it's definitely something worth considering, but at this stage, that's probably your best option.
Mr. CARROLL: This unfortunately exposes a little bit of a deeper issue, as well. I mean, the issue is that there's no standardization across the industry, and there's no consistent means for people to handle this issue. So in the vacuum of a way that consumers can understand, consumers are going to try to figure out a way to solve their problem, which is they want their stuff to be passed to their children or somebody, and they're going to figure out a way to do that.
DAVIES: So you would recommend, again, if one develops a kind of a digital inventory of their stuff that they want to leave some instructions about, you'd want to include the email accounts and Flickr accounts where there might be photos and other things. I assume that this inventory would also include usernames and passwords, right?
Mr. RAMONO: That's correct. And it's important to consider that once you've created this inventory, that you should really consider how you're going to secure that inventory, because the purpose of having a password in the first place is to keep things private. And if your inventory is too accessible - perhaps to people you don't want it to be accessible to - that can compromise the security of your accounts.
DAVIES: Right. And you certainly don't want to put them in your actual will.
Mr. RAMONO: Oh, certainly not. Because a will, in effect, becomes public record. And if, say, for instance, there's - your password's in the will, and no one has changed that password since it was put there, then your password is suddenly exposed to a greater audience.
And there are some interesting services that allow you to store your usernames and passwords in a secure service, like a secure server, and then you can include instructions in your will to go activate that service and release those passwords.
Like one particular service, I think it works out of Switzerland, and they have an online data safeguard(ph). They're actually called DataInherit. And they actually included 64-character code that you can place in with your will and your other documents, that you go to their website, you put in that 64-character code, and then it sends your passwords to the individual that you have authorized previously.
DAVIES: We're talking with Evan Carroll and John Romano.
We'll talk more after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with Evan Carroll and John Romano, authors of the new book "Your Digital Afterlife: When Facebook, Flickr and Twitter are Your Estate, What's Your Legacy?"
There are a number of companies that offer digital inheritance services. What do they do? What are some of the services that they offer?
Mr. RAMONO: Dave, there's a basic model for these services, that they provide what we call storage, and that's a place to store your usernames and passwords, sort of an inventory of your accounts, like we talked about earlier. And then they often provide some sort of trigger mechanism. And this is how they verify that you've passed away or become incapacitated and know to take action and deliver them to the individuals whom you specify, the recipients, the heirs that you want to have access to those accounts.
There's a lot - there are a lot of different trigger options for these accounts. For instance, some services - I'll name a few like Legacy Locker or Entrustit - actually require that your survivors provide a death certificate to their office so they can then verify and then open your account. Others require a secure pass code be entered that you might keep with your will. And others that are perhaps a bit less secure rely upon a group of verifiers, or say you might specify 10 people. And when seven of them say yes, you know, John has passed away, they'll go ahead and release that information.
Mr. CARROLL: I think one of the things that you need to be thinking about also is this is a lot of work to do to set up, and some of these services actually try to provide you some value during your life, not just try to make it easier for your heirs.
There's a service called DataInherit that actually has a way of securing and recalling your own passwords throughout your own life. So every time you create a new account, you put the user name and password in there real fast. And then in the event that your computer burns down or, you know, your list gets lost or something happens, you have the ability to recall all those usernames and passwords so you don't have to go back and struggle with it yourself.
DAVIES: You also write about a company - I think it's called DigitalEstateServices.com - that will get you into locked computers of your loved ones who may have passed away and uncover, you know, user names and passwords.
Mr. RAMONO: Yes, Dave. So Digital Estate Services was a company that we actually located very late during the process of writing the book, sort of towards the end, and we added it in because they were taking a different view. So if you have someone who's passed away and you can -you might want to contact them afterwards and ask for their services to help you gain access. And they can do things like look for saved passwords in computers and different steps like that to try and get into these accounts.
It is worth saying that you should respect that perhaps it wasn't a matter of failed planning on the part of the deceased, but perhaps they wanted to keep some things private. And in those situations where you are sort of retroactively trying to gain access to these things, I would recommend, out of respect for the deceased, that you are very careful in what you choose to do.
DAVIES: Like a digital locksmith, right?
Mr. CARROLL: Right.
Mr. RAMONO: Digital locksmith, that's a great title for it.
DAVIES: There are also services that will deliver a posthumous online message to folks? How does that work?
Mr. CARROLL: There's a whole class of services we call posthumous email that that will actually allow you, to before you die, go in and craft emails to your loved ones or to anybody you really want, and they would be sent out after this sort of trigger mechanism goes off and be sent out to all the people in your distribution list or whoever you want to get them. This would effectively allow you to, you know, either get the last word in on somebody or tell people how much you love them.
I think there's so much grief at the end of the process, and people start blaming themselves and there's a lot of guilt. And I think posthumous letters are a nice way to say, you know, don't worry about the last thing you said to me. You know, you've provided me a lot of joy in my life, or whatever it is. And I think if these posthumous email services have a really interesting way to do that. And a lot of them are now allowing you to attach video and audio clips to it so you can actually get a video from these people once they're gone.
DAVIES: And I guess there are sometimes that you would just as soon see an account deleted. And I noticed that one company has a feature called Account Incinerator.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RAMONO: That's right. Obviously, there are accounts that people create during their life that they dont want handed down to their children or their spouse and they want to be permanently gone. And there's a company called Entrustit, and theyve actually, as part of their service, you can set up certain accounts that will automatically get deleted once you've passed away.
DAVIES: You know, weve been talking a lot about pictures, emails and other kinds of content. You know, more and more people have financial information that they have online access to and there are usernames and passwords that could really be valuable. Do you include that kind of information in your digital inventory and your instructions as well?
Mr. CARROLL: So it's our recommendation that you, of course, realize that anything that has sort of a financial matter should be executed according to your legal will, as we like to call it, that provide a differentiation between your digital estate planning.
That said, there are a lot of accounts that allow you to both spend money and make money online that only exist online. And I would recommend that you take steps to - and store those passwords so that your executor has access to them. Let's say for instance, you might run an online business and need to provide your business partner or even your spouse, who might technically inherit that business, with that information.
Or accounts like PayPal are really interesting because many of us have our PayPal accounts linked to our checking accounts and it's very easy to transfer money out of those accounts. So it's worth, as we like to say, looking at it systematically, and thinking about, well, so-and-so has access to this, then they might also have access to this, and really thinking about worst-case scenario of what could happen and sort of safeguarding yourself against that.
Mr. RAMONO: There's also a lot of practical matters that we really need to think about, such as online bill paying and mortgage payment. I mean, if you have one person in your family that's doing all the paying bills, which I know a lot of families do, if that person passes away, the person left could be sitting there going, how do I pay my mortgage? How do I keep my lights on? So all those things are really important to pass on.
Another sort of related issue to what Evan said with PayPal is, again, you have to remember that that email that you have is a key to all of these financial accounts often as well. So potentially, an heir or maybe even a person that you didn't want to be part of your estate, if they can get access to your email, they can reset your PayPal password, then that could basically give somebody unauthorized access to your checking account. So again, there are a lot of sort of interconnected issues that we kind of have to think about as we move forward.
DAVIES: You know, as I read the book, I became convinced that there's value to taking digital inheritance seriously. But I also realize that just, I'm not going to do a lot of this stuff, just, you know, kind of day-to-day, I'm just never going to get to a lot of it. What are the simple things that somebody can do that are important? I mean, if one were to sort of break it down to the most minimal effort, what would you recommend?
Mr. CARROLL: I think I would immediately just say figure out who you'd want to have your data or figure out who you would want to have access to that and just have a conversation with them. I mean, a five-minute conversation. Say, listen, just so you know, I put my passwords here and this is how I store them and I've got a Flickr account and a, you know, a Vimeo account that I really care about, just make sure you take care of those. I mean, that's a two-minute conversation that you can have with someone that can make them aware of what to do after you're gone.
DAVIES: Evan Carroll, John Romano, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. RAMONO: Thank you very much.
Mr. CARROLL: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Evan Carroll and John Romano spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies. Carroll and Romano have written a new book called "Your Digital Afterlife."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.