What happens to our digital footprint when we die?

A penetrating article in the Wall Street Journal about how memories and our modern, online identities will be remembered after we’ve gone:

Alison Atkins died on July 27 at age 16. Online, her family is losing its hold on her memory.

Three days after the Toronto teen lost a long battle with a colon disease, her sister Jaclyn Atkins had a technician crack Alison’s password-protected MacBook Pro. Her family wanted access to Alison’s digital remains: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Yahoo YHOO and Hotmail accounts that were her lifeline when illness isolated her at home.

“Alison had pictures, messages and poems written that we wanted to keep to remember her,” says Ms. Atkins, 20, an undergraduate at the University of Toronto.

But using Alison’s passwords violated some of those websites’ terms of service, and possibly the law. None of the services allow the Atkins family—or any others—to retrieve the passwords of the deceased. Their argument is that it would violate Alison’s privacy.

Since then, Ms. Atkins’s attempts to recover Alison’s online life have begun falling apart. The websites that previously logged in automatically on Alison’s laptop began locking out Ms. Atkins as part of their standard security procedures. Her attempts to guess or reset her sister’s passwords backfired. Some of the accounts have been shutting themselves down.

On Nov. 21, Alison disappeared from Facebook, where her family used her account to communicate and share memories with more than 500 friends. “We have already lost Alison,” says Ms. Atkins. Now the family says it fears losing another part of her.

The digital era adds a new complexity to the human test of dealing with death. Loved ones once may have memorialized the departed with private rituals and a notice in the newspaper. Today, as family and friends gather publicly to write and share photos online, the obituary may never be complete.

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