TECH TALK with John Rudy: Your Digital Data

Your Digital Data:  Thinking and Planning for Incapacity or Death

All of us have a lot of personal digital data available to us that may not be available to others .  Let’s start with a sample of the various categories:

  • You have files on your home computer, tablet, or smart phone. These may be photos, tax returns, passwords, etc.  In general, nothing will happen to these if you die and (1) IF SOMEONE HAS THE APPROPRIATE PASSWORDS TO ENTER THESE DEVICES and (2) knows the names of the important files.  You probably have thousands of files, and you might not have set up a file structure or named them in a way that is obvious to your heirs.
  • Professionals such as stock brokers, bankers, accountants, and lawyers have your files, and their protection systems are probably robust. In most cases, I suspect that you do not duplicate on your systems the data that they have on theirs, relying on your ability to log into their systems.  But can this data be shared?
  • You might have data with social media environments that your family doesn’t want to lose. Let’s limit ourselves to Facebook for now, but that, of course, is not the only social media platform out there.
  • You have email IDs that could be closed down.

Discussing all these areas in detail is complicated, and you not only have to be proactive, but you also have to understand any pertinent US or state laws that protect this data.  I’m going to provide my thoughts on a number of these issues, but I do not claim to understand all the laws that are in effect.  And some of these laws might differ by locale.

  1. Try to set up your computer folders so they are readable. At the top level. have something called PICTURES or PHOTOS and store all your photos in sub-files under this.  Have a file called TAXES and do a similar thing.  Then document what you have done and ensure that your heirs have a copies.
  2. Have a Password file, with all your passwords. It is best that you use a password manager, but, if not, set up an Excel list.  Keep it hidden, but be sure that your heirs have copies.  If you are sick or die, others may need to get into these accounts.
  3. If you die, some applications will become aware of it. Here is an example that affects me.  MIT provides me with an email address which I can link to whatever normal email I am currently using.  MIT also has a web crawler that looks across the Internet for obits of their graduates.  Six months after I die, MIT will cancel this forwarding service, and my heirs will be unaware that any messages sent to that address will bounce back.  That means that I better make sure that my heirs pay proper attention to all incoming messages for 6 months so that they can inform folks of the proper email address to use in the future.
  4. Companies like Facebook say that they close your page when you die. Is that what you want?  Here is an interesting article on the Facebook situation:  https://www.lifewire.com/facebook-account-after-you-die-4103721 There is even a Facebook app you can download, called “If I die,” that you can set up at any point before your death to control what happens.
  5. Do you want your spouse to have access to your calendar if something happens to you? This might be useful if you would want appointments cancelled or colleagues informed.  Of course, you should be sure that your spouse has access to your address book.
  6. I recently read the following in a newsletter: “Merely scribbling down your passwords on a sheet of paper isn’t always enough. In many cases, your relatives are still legally prohibited from accessing your account without express permission. Thankfully, 41 states have adopted laws that allow you to declare who has access to what data—as long as you include a provision in your will or revocable trust and your power of attorney specifies that they can have access”   Who would think of that?

I am not a lawyer, so I do not know what the legalities are (and they might be different for different states) for allowing your broker or bank or attorney to share data with a designated person.  I have personally addressed this problem by making my heirs trustees for my accounts.  You might ask whether a letter from you is sufficient to provide access (and whether it is effective for both death and disability).

While you are thinking about your digital assets, it might be appropriate to include your heirs’ names on a checking account and on the checks, so that they can pay bills on your behalf if you are incapacitated or die.  Obviously, you must think carefully about who you provide any of this linkage/access to.

And lastly, this is not a one-time endeavor. You should periodically review your approach and attempt to see whether the environment within which you operate has changed.

“BOLLI Matters” feature writer (both Tech Talk and the Chef’s Corner) John Rudy

A long-time technology expert and guide, John provides his helpful hints in this monthly BOLLI Matters feature.  In the comment box below, provide John with questions,  comments, or suggestions future tech items to cover. 

john.rudy@alum.mit.edu (781-861-0402)

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