Taking stock of a loved one’s belongings when they die can be a daunting task, even if they have prepared instructions. So many of our collected things are now living online on a server that belongs to some great technology – photos, recordings, documents, diaries, calendars – it can be extremely difficult to get everything without the owner’s fingerprints or password.
While gaining such access may have previously required lawyers and lengthy approval processes, some platforms are starting to build tools that let you control what happens to your belongings in the event of your death. The most recent is Apple, which rolled out its Digital Legacy feature last month.
In the privacy settings of an Apple device, you can now enroll an “old contact” to receive a special code. When you die, they can send this code along with the death certificate to Apple to access anything you store in iCloud; Photos, notes, email, contacts, calendar, files, memos, health data, device backup, and more.
There’s no way to choose specific saved data that should go to specific people, or to hide things you don’t want your closest relatives to see; Apple has made simplicity a priority here so that your old contact stores everything in your iCloud.
However, that’s not to say that Apple’s new feature is a rock-solid way of making sure your loved ones have access to all of your stuff when you die. It’s a tool built by Apple that removes some of the barriers that may face proving to loved ones who they are and what you want.
One limitation is that if your iPhone is passcode-protected, your family won’t be able to break in, even if you enrolled them as an old contact. Passcodes on the iPhone are protected by encryption, so even with Apple’s help, it’s best to wipe the phone with a new one and hope that important data gets backed up to the cloud.
Account names and passwords stored on your device with Apple Keychain cannot be retrieved by the old contact, which means they cannot control your Netflix or PayPal accounts.
In any case, it’s best to keep important codes and passwords (or your password manager’s master key) in a safe place for your next of kin to find. Even putting them in a note is backing up to iCloud.
Never meant to tweet after Esther Earl’s death. On 25 August 2010, the 16-year-old internet vlogger died after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. In her early teens, Esther had gained a loyal following online, where she posted about her love of Harry Potter and her illness. Then, on February 18, 2011 – six months after her death – Esther posted a message to her Twitter account, @crazycrayon.
Adding an emoji of a smiling face in sunglasses, she wrote, “It’s currently Friday, January 14th of the year 2010. All I wanted to say was: I seriously hope I’m alive at the time of this post.” Her mom, Lori Earl from Massachusetts, tells me that Esther’s online friends were “scared” by the tweet.
“I would say they found her tweet shocking because it was unexpected,” she says. Earl doesn’t know what service his daughter used to schedule the tweets for a year ago, but believes it was for him, not loved ones after his death. “He hoped that he would receive his messages … [it showed] his hopes and longings to still be alive, to hold on to life.”
Although Esther didn’t intend for her tweet to be a posthumous message to her family, a number of services now encourage people to plan their online lives. Want to post on social media and communicate with your friends after death? There are so many apps for that! Replica and Eternity are artificially intelligent chatbots that can imitate your speech to loved ones after you die; GoneNotGone enables you to send email from the grave; And DeadSocial’s “bye-bye tool” allows you to “tell your friends and family that you’re dead”.
In season two, episode one of Black Mirror, a young woman re-creates her dead lover as an artificial intelligence—what was once the subject of a dystopian 44-minute fantasy is closer to reality.
But although Charlie Brooker portrays the digital afterlife as somewhat twisted, in fact the online legacy can be comforting for the bereaved. Esther Earl used a service called FutureMe to send herself emails saying that her parents should read them if she dies.
Three months after Esther died, her mother received one of these emails. “They were seismically powerful,” she says. “That letter made us cry, but also gave us great comfort – I think it’s intentional, due to the fact that she was thinking about her future, the clarity with which she accepted who she was and who she was.” wanted to be.”