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Page last updated at 12:45 GMT, Friday, 25 September 2009 13:45 UK

Protecting your digital assets after death

By Ian Hardy
BBC Click

Man with a Blackberry phone
Who eventually owns your personal digital data?

Thanks to an endless stream of gadgets many of us are in heaven when it comes to technology. Do-it-all phones, never ending storage, social web sites - to many this is what life is all about.

At some point though drop dead gorgeous gizmos outlive their owners. But once we die, what happens to the digital life we leave behind?

Plan ahead

As might be expected, policies vary from company to company. E-mail providers will often give up the deceased's password on receipt of a death certificate from the family.

Social site Facebook offers to memorialize a page by freezing it in time, but Flickr refuses all access to an account and Twitter does not even address death directly in its FAQ.

Michael Blacksburg
How do I make sure that the people that I want to have access to my online files or passwords get it - and it's done legally?
Michael Blacksburg
Estate Planning Attorney

A new book, Total Recall by Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell, raises intriguing questions about who eventually owns your personal digital data. That is why estate planners say it is best to take charge while you are still breathing.

Michael Blacksburg is one of a growing number of lawyers who bring up digital assets in every consultation with his clients.

''How do I make sure that the people that I want to have access to my online files or passwords get it - and it's done legally?'' Mr Blacksburg says.

He often finds people have not even thought about their online accounts and it is not always a straight-forward decision. You might not want anybody to read your e-mails when you have gone - ever.

''I shudder to think what would happen if a surviving spouse were to receive an online e-mail account and find that their deceased spouse has been cheating on them for the last 20 years or has a separate family with somebody else or has been hiding money or any of the other things that could be detrimental to somebody's memory,'' says Mr Blacksburg.

There is no doubt that many people have ditched the little black book or filofax and keep their lives on a mobile device that contains e-mails, texts and even a diary.

This can make it very difficult for relatives to get at that data if it is password protected.

Hong Bui, head of backup firm Memeo, confronted just this issue following a difficult personal experience.

''My wife's father recently passed away and it took us a lot of time to discover the trail of his paperwork, his information, his passwords," he said, "and recently one of my uncles passed away as well, and he had all his accounts online and all his e-mail accounts no one knows what those passwords are.''

Prioritizing the living

There are also growing amounts of hardware that make it harder to retrieve the data stored on it. Seagate's BlackArmor hard drive is perfect for storing documents, contact lists or personal photographs thanks to its use of 256-bit encryption and a super strong login system.

The drive will keep its secrets forever unless the password is passed on before you pass away.

''It's a bunch of garbled up bits and bytes that can't be read. The keys are not contained within the locked content itself so the keys take the form of the password. The password opens the keys - without that password you can't get access,'' says Jon van Bronkhorst, of Seagate Technology.

In the event of a password being lost Seagate can help read a disk but cannot help decrypt content.

The fact is hardware and software companies concentrate on living customers because they prefer to market their products with excitement and the promise of a great future. .

Legacy Locker
Legacy Locker helps you pass your personal accounts to your family

Some think it would very difficult to bring up the "D" word to their customers.

''You don't want to put up the topic of death in front of them, saying we have this for you, in case you're no longer are around. That's definitely a challenge for us,'' says Mr Bui.

Despite this there are some products and services who purposefully focus on what happens to your data after you die

One such is Legacy Locker, based in San Francisco is run by Jeremy Toeman. For a monthly or lifetime fee you can upload and store all your most personal passwords and documents which are then e-mailed to your pre-chosen contacts should the worst happen to you.

Mr Toeman claims the site is exceptionally secure: ''I get asked all the time what people are storing, what's the number one site... ? I have no idea, I cannot see anything other than billing information. I can't even reset someone's password for them if they don't want me to.''

And if you are rightly worried about a start up business expiring before you do, Legacy Locker claims that it has set aside enough funding to carry on running the servers for decades to come, even if the company itself stops operating.

Watch Click on BBC News Channel, Saturday 27 September at 11.30 (BST).

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