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​Protecting your afterlife in the digital realm

David Pogue shows us options to keep your virtual self alive online after the real you is gone
Dying online 06:01

Even when it isn't Halloween, it can be a scary to think of how much of our lives we live online. Scarier still, perhaps, to think of the digital consequences once we sign off for good. Here's David Pogue of Yahoo Tech:

Used to be, you knew what to do with all the memorabilia of your life. You'd put it in a box to give to your kids, or you'd write it into your will.

But these days, the most complete record of your life may not be in boxes; it may be online.

All those photos on Flickr. Videos on YouTube. Daily events on Facebook. Thoughts on Twitter. What happens to all that stuff, when you move on to the great cyber café in the sky?

Evan Carroll is an expert on what happens to our online stuff when we die. "We have entered this time as a society where we're a bit ahead of our laws and our policies with respect to our digital property," he said.

Carroll and his coauthor maintain a blog, and they've even written a book, "Your Digital Afterlife."

"Some states have laws, some states don't," said Carroll. "Some people put these things in their wills now. Some people don't. So there are so many different things that could happen."

Nobody crashed into that messy state of affairs harder than John Berlin.

Earlier this year, on Facebook's 10th anniversary, it offered every member a beautiful, one-minute musical montage of his or her Facebook life.

Jesse Berlin had died in 2012, and his father, John, dearly wanted to see his son's montage video.

"Only problem with that was, you had to get on his page to request it. I didn't have access to his page, I didn't know his password," John told Pogue.

So he had a desperate, great idea: he made a YouTube video.

"I took my iPhone, I propped it up on a picture against a wall, and I just poured my heart out on it to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg."

"And we can't access his Facebook account. I've tried emailing and different things, but it ain't working. All we want to do is see his movie. That's it."

Three million people watched his plea.

"And by the end of the day," said Berlin, "Facebook called me."

Facebook gave John access to his son's video -- and further improved its existing policies. If your loved one passes away, you can ask for that Facebook account to be what's called "memorialized."

"Whatever privacy settings that were in place at the time that the account was memorialized, they allow those to persist," said Carroll. "Your Facebook profile can become a memorial to you, and can be a place for communal bereavement where they share messages."

On Google, you can specify in advance exactly what should happen if Google doesn't hear from you for a few months.

"You can ask them to pass information to another individual," said Carroll. "You can ask them to delete the account. You can set up an auto-responder to your Gmail account: 'Hey, I'm no longer checking this account,' for whatever reason."

"'Hey, I'm no longer alive!'" said Pogue.

"That's a strange email to write!" laughed Carroll.

Already, about 30 million Facebook accounts belong to dead people. To some, that's a business opportunity. There are now websites that, upon your death, automatically send your list of passwords to someone you've specified.

There are sites that send emails after you've gone, or publish a posthumous Facebook post.

Other sites serve as perpetual lockers for your photos and files.


Lifenaut.comBruce Duncan is the managing director of the Terasem Movement Foundation, which runs a free web site,, where heirs or relatives can look through the deceased's files.

"This is a picture of me when I was three years old," Duncan showed Pogue. "So they could say, 'Well, that's great-grandfather Bruce, and that's where he lived."

"Before the beard!"

"Before the beard, yeah!"

Lifenaut and other sites also offer to create conversational animated versions of you, so that, you know, you're not really gone at all. "Hey, I'm so glad to see you! What's up?" said the avatar.

Terasem is also experimenting with an even creepier way to keep your memory alive.

Bina48, a robot whose looks and responses are based on a real person -- Bina Rothblatt, the wife of Terasem's founder.

"She is, like the, first -- what I would call a pretty primitive demonstration of that idea," said Duncan.

Primitive is right. Pogue asked Bina 48, "Were you married?"

"End number 160, end number 160, end number 160, end number 160 . . . " it replied.

Evan Carroll isn't quite sold. "To be honest, I feel like some of those services are a bit of a novelty," he told Pogue. "And I wouldn't rely upon them to be here when I'm gone!"

"So suppose that I am someone who's very private and I don't want my stuff to live on after I'm gone -- what are the steps I can take now?" asked Pogue.

"The number one thing I would recommend you do is you make sure your family knows those wishes, and they know where your files are stored," said Carroll.

"And what if I'm the opposite? What if I want my stuff to live on for future generations to enjoy? What are my best chances?"

"Well, it's the exact same thing," said Carroll. "You want your family to know, 'These are my wishes. This is what I would like to happen.'

"And of course, back up your content, 'cause multiple copies keep stuff safe."

Because we all know there are only three sure things in life: Death, taxes and hard drive failure.

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