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Digital inheritance: What happens to our traces on the Internet after death

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Today most people live in two worlds: analog and digital. Only rarely does it come to mind what actually happens to all the data on the Internet when we die. Do loved ones expect an impenetrable administrative jungle to delete our accounts? Are we becoming immortal digital people?

There are many traces in virtual space. People order, pay, invest online. You have accounts with mail providers, providers, retailers, social media, telephone providers, gaming and streaming services. They store pictures on the internet, trade on Bitcoin exchanges, operate video channels and podcasts or small shops. Data in the cloud and on USB sticks are the norm – as are registrations for services that we have done at some point but long since forgotten. All of this is part of the digital inheritance, our digital estate.

Who owns the data if something happens to us is of little interest – even if the number of people who take care of it is slowly increasing, according to the digital association Bitkom. A survey by Bitkom in 2019 found that 65 percent of Internet users did not take precautions in the event of their death. 13 percent of Internet users had fully managed their digital estate, another 18 percent at least partially. Two years earlier, however, there had been even more people who hadn’t taken care of it: 80 percent.

Bitkom Research

And in 2018, a Yougov analysis showed that hardly every tenth person (8 percent) of around 2,000 respondents stored their own access data to services and accounts for people who are close to them. Less than half of the respondents (45 percent) were aware of the topic.

But is it really important to take care of it?

“People always die – today they leave legacy and data behind”

It could at least make ways easier: for people who are close to us and who take care of our affairs after our death. In case of doubt, you don’t just have to worry about the complex terms and conditions of operators, evidence and correspondence in order to gain access to our data and delete them. Often it is also about sensitive data in emails and social networks. Or the costs of digital subscriptions. If these continue, debts arise.

Nevertheless, the topic often remains untouched. Even when taboos fall in times of crisis, death is seldom one of them. The Nuremberg sociologist and content expert Dennis Schmolk runs the information platform “digital after” together with his wife Sabine Landes part-time. It deals with pensions and the question of what happens to our data on the Internet if something happens to us.

Dennis Schmolk.
Credit: Sabine Kurtz

Schmolk and Landes set up a media library and a blog on the topic. Several thousand people are interested in this every month. “People always die,” says Schmolk, “but today, in addition to a classic legacy, they leave behind a lot of files, traces, and communication.”

There are still no routines in dealing with the digital traces of people who have died. “Information on this is often difficult to find on the Internet.” The right of heirs to access the data of their deceased is complex. “As heirs in this country, relatives generally have more rights than in the USA,” says Schmolk.

He and his wife also give lectures, workshops, conferences and consultations on digital inheritance and online mourning culture and have the handbook for provident and survivors composed. Both work full-time in the field of legal services.

Digital estate management and that Taboo death

A tour of the internet and a conversation with Schmolk shows that death has long since arrived in the digital world. Through digital funeral service providers, through funeral services in the live stream, for example during the pandemic. But also through business models that integrate it. On request, a number of digital providers regulate formal steps relating to a death – from the funeral to coordinating the mourners via app to managing the estate on the Internet.

Digital estate administrators take care of this: These can be funeral service providers or special insurance companies, but startups also offer services for digital estate management. They are called Ninebarc, Columba, Exmedio or lasthello.

Founders in particular struggle with one thing in particular: the taboo death and the unwillingness of most users to touch the necessary protection of their data. “At the moment the topic is a bit Covid-driven,” says Schmolk. “There are three main things that make digital inheritance challenging: people have little knowledge about it and are digitally active to varying degrees. And the taboo is enormous, much less with older people than with young people. “

That also makes it difficult for startups. Many founders would be motivated to start with the idea of ​​solving the problem quickly, for example through services with which they can store the digital data of users securely. “But they rarely pick up customers permanently – they usually live longer than the startups.”

“The need to take care of data arises after the death of a person”

The market is big – and dynamic. Most founders notice a gap in the range of services due to the death of someone close to them. Service providers such as Exmedio or lasthello encourage people to compile their own access data for accounts and memberships and to store them with them. They are then stored offline on a separate platform, for example. Mail contact between the customer and the company ensures that the customer is still alive at certain time intervals. If someone makes use of such a service, they designate a separate contact person who will address the company if the line to the user is lost.

“No matter how sensitive they are, everyone deals with their own data differently,” says Dennis Schmolk. “At best, many give a family member a power of attorney for passwords and access.” Service providers have it easier if their offer to regulate the digital estate takes effect after the death of a person, says Schmolk. “The bereaved then need a solution. The need is there. “

Startups like Ninebarc and Columba use this. Columba handles formalities, for example de-registering a deceased person with insurers. The software also regulates the digital estate by automatically researching deceased accounts and contracts with web providers. Identified contracts are terminated or transferred in good time. The company is a member of the Association of German Undertakers (BDB).

Ninebarc takes a slightly different approach: It integrates its services into the offerings of insurers and financial service providers instead of working directly with end customers. Here, too, customers store access to their digital estate as well as other pension documents in a kind of digital safe.

Arrange the digital estate yourself: this is how it can work

Instead of immediately outsourcing the data to a service, Schmolk and Landes recommend a four-step process to anyone who wants to take care of their digital estate.

To get an overview of your own data

“What accounts do I have? Which of these is relevant? The questions can guide you to do a check, ”says Schmolk. Anyone who notices that they have old accounts that they no longer use should delete them immediately.

Set inheritance for digital data and services

Do you run your own website? Do you have Bitcoin or other digital possessions? Take a look at everything and decide what to do with it after you die or who should inherit it.

Record the project in a legally secure manner

If you do not want to write this in a will, you should put it in writing and deposit this document so that a person of trust can find it. This is where a notary comes into play. He can keep such powers of attorney and also give tips to ensure that they are valid after death.

Check the technical feasibility

“These lists with accesses and inheritance information can be stored technically as long as access will probably still be possible in a few years,” says Schmolk. Password files are a help. How sure do you want to be that your bereaved will find the entrances? The minimum is the access of a confidant to the most important mail accounts.

The federal government also points out the importance of the digital legacy. And for some time now, you have also been able to get information from the consumer advice centers about how everyone can sort their digital activities in just a few steps.

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