Nightwatch column in Day and Night in the Indo
Feature on Fawlty Towers @ 30 also in the Indo
Lastly, a piece on Legacy Locker in today's Irish Examiner...
Just as the internet and the dawn of the digital age has changed life as we know it, now it is changing death too. Earlier this month a website was launched offering a form of ‘cyber will’ that would bequeath to a loved one the usernames and passwords for a person’s entire online existence, be it their social networking pages, iTunes subscription, PayPal information or online bank accounts.
Legacy Locker, conceived in the heart of Silicone Valley in San Francisco, will allow a person to nominate one or more beneficiaries to receive this sensitive information upon the event of their death. The site’s creators have argued that, while in the past, a person only had to make provisions for their physical belongings, today’s cyber-centric culture means that “digital assets” need to be considered just as seriously.
Jeremy Toeman, a digital media consultant who co-founded Legacy Locker, says the inspiration for the site stemmed from the death of his own grandmother two years ago. “She was 94 when she died, but she and I used to exchange emails all the time,” he explains. “It was a pastime of hers that she also enjoyed with other friends and family around the world. After she died, my dad and I tried to figure out a way to get into her Hotmail account, but had no luck so basically her account is, for all intents and purposes, dead.
“Then last year, I was on a flight home, and I just had one of those moments. It hit me that, while all my physical assets were protected in my estate plan, I had nothing in place to deal with all of my online goods and assets such as my computer’s password, my five email accounts and my Amazon store credit. If anything happened to me, virtually all of these assets would become literally inaccessible to my wife and family, despite the fact that I had a will. While they were legally protected, in all practical terms they’d become effectively worthless.”
Customers to the Legacy Locker site have three different sign-up options to choose from. You can register unlimited assets, beneficiaries and “legacy letters” (emails that get sent to family, friends, or colleagues with a goodbye note) for e22 a year or for a one-off payment of e225. There is also the option to register three assets, one beneficiary and one legacy letter for free.
Upon signing up, you choose security questions (for example, your favourite band) and “verifiers” (people you trust completely who can “confirm your condition” with a death cert). You then get to select the digital assets you want to make available to a beneficiary, be they email accounts, photo sharing sites, Facebook, MySpace and Twitter accounts, as well as blogs or (and I quote) “simple directives/locations of all real-world important assets like contact info for nannies, dry cleaners etc”.
It’s certainly a very novel, 21st century concept, but how can Toeman and the site’s operators guarantee the security and legal integrity of the service? “We’ve designed the security system to work at least as securely as typical online banking services,” Toeman explains. “Every user’s data is individually encrypted, which prevents the worst kind of hacking attempts. Regarding legal issues, we have consulted with numerous estate planning attorneys to determine the best methods for providing a correctly designed system for our users.”
Toeman admits that not everybody would necessarily want their Facebook or Bebo page to live on after them, but he adds: “With Legacy Locker, the account holder is in control of these kinds of decisions, instead of being at the mercy of a web service with hundreds of millions of users.”
Apparently, there are many people who agree. Toeman says the response has been “amazing” since the site’s launch two weeks ago. “We’ve had a lot of users signing up and trying it out,” he says. “Right now we haven’t done any user surveying, and for both privacy and security reasons, we don't have access to specific information about our users. But from the emails I’ve exchanged with people, we seem to have a lot of parents signing up, in particular.”
There are two obvious questions to ask when considering such a service as Legacy Locker. The first is: if someone signs up for the site today, and lives for the next 60-70 years, how can Toeman guarantee the service will still be around at that time in the future?
“I think predicting 70 years into the future is a challenge for anyone,” he laughs. “That said, we’ve taken measures to ensure the business can be fully self-sustainable for the foreseeable future. Our customers can have a lot of confidence in our longevity.”
The second question is: why not just write all your passwords, usernames and so on into a journal and lock it away in a safety deposit box, the location of which could be indicated in a written will? “Ultimately it's just not feasible to maintain all online account information by such a method,” Toeman argues.
“Most internet users are signing up to new services on a fairly recurring basis, and considering we should all be changing our passwords on a semi-regular interval, it seems pretty logical to me that an online service is the appropriate way to handle such activities.”
Damien Mulley, a Cork-based media trainer and web consultant (www.mulley.net), predicts that sites like Legacy Locker will play an even bigger role in years to come. “I think a lot of people will be shocked at the idea of it, but we’re now in a world where we own more digital than physical items,” he says.
“I think in five years time these services will be very common and people won't react to them at
all. I’ve seen and heard of a few of these services before, and considering the way I interact with people now, mainly via Facebook, Twitter or my blog, I’d use this service.
“An Irish blogger died a short while ago, and his blog is still there showing all his previous writings. I’d want the same for what I've done and I'd like to have my username and passwords go to someone that would look after them. It's really just like passing on house keys, car keys and photo albums when you think about it.”
*Legacy Locker isn’t the first service to offer an online storage unit for your vital cyber information. KeepYouSafe.com is a e38-a-year online safe deposit box for your home owner’s policy, medical data and other records.
Meanwhile, www.deathswitch.com is an “information insurance” service that advises you not to die “with secrets that need to be free”. The company - whose motto is “Bridging Mortality” - explains its service on its homepage in slightly morbid terms: “A deathswitch is an automated system that prompts you for your password on a regular schedule to make sure you’re still alive,” it states.“When you do not enter your password for some period of time, the system prompts you again several times. With no reply, the computer deduces you are dead or critically disabled, and your pre-scripted messages are automatically emailed to those named by you.” The premium subscription to the site costs e15 a year.