What happens to your virtual data when you die?

This newspaper article contains comments of mine about data protection. Publication date was August 2009.


Think living in the digital age is complicated? Try dying.

Dying can create a cybermess, if you leave your relatives and business partners struggling to access your online bank accounts, email passwords and other personal information.

A growing number of companies are offering to house your data, for a fee, in a virtual safety deposit box. When you die, your spouse or whoever else you designate can get everything from your eBay password to your gym locker combination, including a final message from you in email or video form.

Jeremy Toeman, who co-founded Legacy Locker earlier this year, was prompted by some tense moments on an airplane last summer.

“I had one of those `what would happen’ moments, and realized that none of my online stuff in any way would be able to transfer to my wife,” Toeman said.

“Would I want my blog shut down, would I want my Facebook profile to stay the same? I have a lot of online bill paying services … that she may want to change the way they work or possibly cancel.”

Sites such as Legacy Locker or Assetlock, both headquartered in the United States, or British-Columbia-based Private Matters, are not meant to replace a legal will or estate plan. They’re more of an add-on that can focus on the smaller details.

And, unlike a will, documents stored online can be updated easily and as often as you want. Every time you sign up for something – an account with online photo-sharing site Flickr, or a new credit card for example – you can add your numbers and passwords to the data you have stored.

“I could just write this all down in a book and put it in my desk, and I think that’s fine, but I think the problem is that so much of our life now is on the Internet in terms of passwords and everything else, so you open a new bank account somewhere or you go to a new site and you have a new password, and your book’s outdated,” said Collin Harris, CEO of AssetLock.

The companies also let customers store written messages or videos they want distributed to friends or family members after their death. Whether it’s a loving message to a spouse or a final kiss-off to an annoying cousin, users can write their own message or record their own video and upload it to their online locker.

But are people willing to upload sensitive personal information to some dot-com run by someone in California or Nevada they’ve never met? And, given the average life-span of online businesses, what are the odds the customer will outlive the company?

“I’m wary of third-party businesses that could vanish at any time,” said Brad Trupp, a Winnipeg-based software developer who prefers to keep his private information in a personal safe.

“It’s fine that they have the information saved, but what happens if they go before you do?”

Trupp stores all his information on his computer in encrypted form, and keeps a backup copy on a USB drive in his safe – something he admits may be a little beyond what most people will do.

Assetlock admits trust has been its biggest hurdle.

“That’s a problem. If we were a well-known (name) or something, I think people would have a lot more trust,” Harris said.

“We really thought at this point that we’d have millions instead of thousands of users, but I think the trust (question) is a legitimate one, I understand it.”

The companies have tried to soothe security concerns by setting up a system that allows only the customer to access his or her information through an encrypted key that the companies say they do not track. It’s so secretive, company officials say, that if a customer forgets the key, no one can retrieve it.

The contents are kept secret until a customer’s death is verified, and are only revealed to people chosen by the customers.

Legacy Locker’s fees start at US$30 a year or $300 for a lifetime with unlimited storage. AssetLock charges between $9.95 per year and $239.95 for a lifetime, but all accounts limit how many gigabytes you can store. Private Matters charges an initial fee of US$69.99, plus an annual maintenance fee of $12.00.