Every day we generate huge amounts of data – emails, messages, social network updates, photographs, information about our health, diet, activity… the list goes on.
Unlike us, that data is here to stay – so what should our loved ones do with it in the event of our deaths?
Iain Twigg was 33 when he passed away.
“I woke up the day after he died and it’s a whole different world and there was so much to do,” his widow Caroline told me.
Iain had been undergoing successful chemotherapy for a brain tumour. Then suddenly he experienced a seizure and three months later he was gone.
While her parents helped Caroline tackle probate and sort out financial arrangements, there was one legacy that she had to tackle alone.
“Iain wasn’t a person who liked the internet or the computer, he complained about how much time people spent on it and yet he still ended up with so many different accounts and passwords and a whole life online,” she said.
“Fifty years ago people had a shoebox of photos and letters. If you look online for things for Iain there’s thousands of pictures and messages.”
Despite her husband’s initial ambivalence about the internet, Caroline found comfort in cyberspace.
She set up a website to celebrate Iain’s life and through the charity Widowed and Young (WAY) discovered a supportive online community of other women who lost their partners before the age of 50. She also used crowd-funding site Kickstarter to fund writing a book which she created for children to help them deal with grief.
Some people choose to anchor a digital presence to a physical space – their own headstone.
Dorset company QR Memories offers stainless steel QR codes which can be attached to a grave and link through to a web page full of content provided by the person while they were still alive, or by their families.
“It’s not always the things we would expect,” says managing director Stephen Nimmo of the material uploaded.
“We have got some video from a lady’s funeral, the hymns that were sung and an old gentleman in a pub simply singing – seven minutes of him singing this song and that clearly is what defined him.”
The firm charges £95 for a code and £95 for an accompanying page, although the code can link to anywhere on the net if preferred.
“QR codes have a strange beauty to them,” he adds.
“We often get asked what happens if they become obsolete, what do you do next? We always think about it but they are here to stay in whatever form they might be. The fact they haven’t become an overused medium is probably quite a good thing for us, it remains more unique to what we’re trying to achieve.”
Caroline chose to memorialise Iain’s Facebook page, which meant that while his friends could still see his timeline and photos there were no painful reminders around the time of his birthday, for example.
Last year Facebook updated its policy to include nominating a “legacy contact” who can play a more active role in managing someone’s page, including writing a pinned post, updating profile photographs and responding to friend requests.
They can also download a copy of the profile – but not read private messages or log in as the account holder themselves.
Alternatively you can just request that the company deletes your account.
If you do nothing, the firm will memorialise your account once notified of your death.
“For a number of years we provided the ability to memorialise an account,” said Vanessa Callison-Burch, product manager for Facebook memorialisation..
“What we heard over time was that people really wanted to do more things with the account after someone had passed away.
“We also heard people wanted to be able to plan ahead and decide what they would like to have happen to their own account.”
Ms Callison-Burch said that “millions” of people have chosen legacy contacts so far.
Not all tech firms are as flexible – under Twitter’s current guidelines an account can only be deleted after notification of a person’s death and Apple is notoriously reluctant to provide assistance with tracking down unknown Apple ID passwords.
Caroline was able to guess most of her husband’s passwords – they had known each other since school days – but they hadn’t ever discussed it.
And they are not alone – a poll recently carried out by UK-based funeral directors CPJ Field of nearly 2,500 adults found that only 14% of them had shared their log-in details.
“Passwords are a big issue,” says Caroline.
“If your partner gets run over you’re not going to have any warning so this is applicable to everybody – write your passwords down and keep them somewhere accessible.”
Some firms like US-based LastPass offer a password management service – you store all your passwords with them under encryption and have a “master key” – a kind of super password that unlocks the rest.
In January this year it introduced an emergency access feature whereby a designated contact can request access to your account and it will be granted after a certain period of time designated by you.
So if somebody requests access, LastPass emails its client and waits for a response. If none arrives in the timeframe stated, emergency access is granted.
But how reliable are these firms?
LastPass has already been breached once and says it remains “vigilant” to future hack attacks.
It has been in business for eight years, but the lifespan of this sort of enterprise is uncertain, warns Dr Wendy Moncur, reader in socio-digital interaction at Dundee University.
“There have been a number of [legacy manager] companies springing up since about 2005,” she says.
“What we’ve been seeing is that some of them last, most of them don’t. Some companies are lasting less time than the social media users they aim to serve.”
Caroline Twigg also has a more personal warning about digital housekeeping.
“People will find stuff online,’ she says.
“I’ve met people who discovered quite awful secrets after their partner had gone by looking on their computer.
“If you have things you wouldn’t want certain people to see, just assume it’s all accessible afterwards.”