There are no secrets in cyberspace. Despite significant efforts to protect online privacy and security, our online assets are vulnerable, and should we neglect to make a plan for their transition after our deaths, we risk potentially sensitive private information becoming public.
Making your digital estate plan is an opportunity to clean your digital closets. What’s in your files that you wish you could forget? What do you want erased upon your death? Better still, what’s online that you could erase now and save those left behind the discomfort of dealing with, including your digital steward or executor?
Being human, most of us will have some potentially embarrassing details about our lives or our online interactions tucked away in obscure corners of cyberspace. Think about the skeletons in your digital closet. Consider smartphones, computers, and tablets. You may wish to sweep and clear your browser history on these devices periodically or leave instructions to have this done on your death. Don’t forget about embarrassing apps on phones or tablets. Sweep and clear your hard drive or other storage devices such as external hard drives, thumb or flash drives, CDs or DVDs. Potentially embarrassing photos, videos, documents, or bootleg software should all be deleted on your death as well as any secret or potentially hurtful texts or email messages, or secret accounts you may hold.
The secrets need not be illicit, illegal, or dangerous to be worth a pre-mortem purge. A colleague of ours is dealing with a challenging set of circumstances with his adult son. He frequently sends direct messages seeking advice, support, or simply to vent his frustration. These conversations are private and intended to be supportive, but should the son read them out of context, particularly while grieving, they could be hurtful. It is easy to forget that what you assume are private back channel conversations – via text, direct message, Messenger, WhatsApp or others– are actually a part of your digital footprint and could easily be accessible after your death.
Conducting a Digital Assets Inventory will help you identify and understand the full extent of your digital footprint. From email accounts to websites, from gaming, shopping, and entertainment accounts to social media profiles consider the content you have created and posted, and its potential impact on your loved ones and your legacy. As you make your digital estate plan, be meticulous and communicate your specific wishes to your digital steward, estate executor, or a trusted friend or loved one.
Angela Crocker and Vicki McLeod are the co-authors of Digital Legacy Plan, A Guide to the Personal and Practical Elements of Your Digital Life Before Die (Self-Counsel Press 2019).