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Managing Your Digital Legacy: Will Others Be Able to Access Your Cloud-Based Files When You No Longer Can?
Volume 37, Number 6 - November/December 2013


Here are some steps to take:

Map your digital assets. Make a comprehensive inventory of your digital estate and cast a wide digital net when planning. Map out all your accounts, along with access information (usernames, passwords, answers to “secret” questions). Take the time to read service provider agreements to understand how your accounts and digital assets within that account will be handled in the event you no longer can. Make backup copies (paper or digital media or another cloud site) of anything you feel might have financial or sentimental value and store it in a second location. If we rely on storage in one location only, a cyber attack could corrupt servers, and all data connected with the site could be irrevocably destroyed. One hopes that the online services we use have their own backups stored in other locations with adequate protection.

Keep password and access information in a secure location—perhaps in a sealed envelope—and leave instructions in a paper-based filing cabinet or with an executor as to where this information can be located. Make sure this information is kept up-to-date. A practice being followed successfully by one family is having all account passwords and account information for each family member placed in a secure and encrypted document that is stored in a cloud account and accessible to any member of the family.

Formats. Preserve for sustainability. Digital files are stored in various forms, which provide complications in tracking and disposition. If stored on media not in common use, the files may not be accessible without the technology that can render them readable. Hardware and software obsolescence present obstacles to accessing older formats of content created with versions of proprietary content authoring tools no longer available. The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) at the Library of Congress has educational resources, training workshops, and a very active program promoting awareness and access to preservation resources; go to for more information.

As with any other kind of estate planning, get legal advice about incorporating digital assets into a will and authorizing someone to act with power of attorney to manage digital assets in case you are incapacitated. Several sources caution that access and password information should not be written into a will, because a will is a public record and available to anyone.

Make your choices clear as to the beneficiaries of your digital property, as well as any wishes to delete a particular asset or even all your digital assets. Make your wishes as explicit as you can. Think about whether anyone should have access to your email after your death, e.g., to notify your contacts. Do you want your profiles removed from all social media sites?

To protect privacy and prevent identity theft, determine which digital assets are worth protecting and don’t be afraid to delete what is superfluous. Develop good record-keeping habits for your digital assets, keep them manageable, and reduce digital clutter as much as possible. Many of us tend to ignore the fact that some personal information we possess in digital files may be potentially harmful or damaging to us or to others. Personal and business accounts may all be mixed up in one storage space—this often happens with email. For confidentiality, some information may need to be partitioned and only made accessible to authorized persons. Make sure any content you don’t want shared or revealed has a mechanism for removal or being kept private.

Several stories on the internet tell of families being upset when denied access to a loved one’s email or social media account. Yet others tell of friends and families being startled and upset when, knowing that someone is dead, they still get requests to connect from that person’s social networking account. The mechanisms for alerting a network and communities of a person’s death as well as the protocol surrounding removal or maintenance of connections with deceased online friends still need to be worked out. You may want to consider how this should happen. Google Inactive Manager offers one option. One of the Online Afterlife Management Services may offer a viable solution. Check out the Digital Beyond blog managed by Evan Carroll, who maintains a list of these services:

Even if you do take all these precautions, it doesn’t mean you will have complete control of your digital legacy, particularly in the absence of uniform laws. However, there is a better chance of having your wishes followed if you put them in writing. At the very least, it may help executors obtain a court order if one is necessary.


I recently undertook a nonscientific, exploratory study to try to gauge prevailing attitudes toward the management of personal digital assets. A snowballing technique was used to enlist participants by posting requests for participation on the AIIP, BUSLIB, and SLA Toronto Chapter discussion lists. A request was sent to family and friends as well. The questions were framed to get a sense of the types of personal digital assets individuals might possess, practices around record keeping and backing up of digital assets, and prevailing attitudes toward emergency/contingency planning.

Of the 78 responses received, 57% are from Canada, 22% from the United States, 11% from Europe, and 10% from Australia and Asia combined. Thirty-three percent of respondents are younger than 40 years old, 46% are between the ages of 40 and 60, and 21% are older than 60. This group is very active online:

• 92% of respondents have one or more social network accounts, with 88% on Facebook, followed by 80% on LinkedIn, and 59% on Twitter.

• 51% own one or more domain names; 37% publish personal blogs or have image and audio-video content online; and 44% publish business blogs and/or image, audio- and/or video content online.

• 92% of respondents do online banking, and 93% have online commercial accounts with vendors such as Amazon, eBay, PayPal, etc.

Digital content is stored in multiple places, which is not surprising. Ninety-three pecent store content on their computer hard drive; 62% use external storage media, 55% use cloud storage; 44% have content on various social media sites; and 18% have files stored on a corporate network. A small subset of respondents keep no paper copies of financial and legal documents (4%), photos (11%), medical records (15%), or account passwords (45%).

Respondents back up digital content in various ways and with varying frequency. However, some do not back up certain types of content: 42% do not back up email; 38% do not back up blogs, video, or audio content; 23% do not back up photos; and 22% do not back up financial and legal documents.

Very few of the respondents have engaged in any digital legacy planning:

• Only 8% have a mapping of their digital assets; 32% don’t but plan to do so.

• Only 11% have instructions for accessing their digital assets in a form and location that can be easily communicated to others; 29% don’t but plan to do so.

• Only one respondent has appointed an executor; 21 respondents have not but plan to do so.

Although no inference can be made about the population at large from this limited study, the results are interesting. Though the demographics show a high proportion of respondents are internet savvy and possess substantial digital assets, there is very little engagement in digital asset contingency planning.

Other studies show similar results. In a survey commissioned by the BMO Retirement Institute, 99% of North Americans reported using at least one personal online tool and 85% at least one financial online tool (BMO Retirement Institute Report, April 2012: “Estate Planning in the 21st Century: New Considerations in a Changing Society”; Fifty-seven percent of those older than 55 were banking online in 2011 (compared to only 20% in 2010). This “Boomer” generation, the report observed, is significantly different from their tech-savvy younger counterparts in being the biggest group of online spenders, spending more money on technology than any other demographic: “From social media to on-line stock trading, the surge in boomers who have a personal, professional or financial presence online and the scale of their involvement has created millions of intangible digital assets.”

The transition from paper to paperless is notable: Important records, including income tax returns, account statements, and receipts, are now increasingly saved online. Yet, although more than half the survey respondents (58%) aged 45 and older with digital property believed it to be “very or somewhat important” to set contingencies in place for their personal and financial digital assets, the majority (57%) of these individuals had no such provisions in their formal estate plans. When asked why, the most common answers were, “I didn’t think of it” (55%) and “I didn’t think it was necessary” (32%).

The “Generation Cloud” study, referenced above and sponsored by Rackspace Hosting (, was conducted by a research team from the Centre for Creative and Social Technology, University of London, profiling the attitudes of 2,000 adults in the U.K. about cloud computing. The results showed that 74% of U.K. adults either didn’t know or didn’t think they were using cloud services. Yet, 93% reported regularly using cloud-based services such as Facebook, YouTube, Hotmail, Spotify, Dropbox, and iPlayer. Although 53% of adults stored photos, music, emails, and videos; 44% stored financial and legal documents in the cloud; and 30% considered digital possessions as “digital inheritance,” only 11% either had password information available or had plans to make them available with their wills.

Prevailing Attitudes Toward the Management of Personal Digital Legacies infographic


As the “Generation Cloud” report observed, the technologies we engage with every day connect us in ways we are only beginning to understand. The tools for recording what we see, experience, and think have become very easy to use, and right now storage of it all is relatively inexpensive and abundant. It is more cumbersome and difficult to plan, organize, and make decisions about what to keep and what to discard. However, we cannot go on this way. We need to take charge of our digital legacies, build awareness, and make good preservation practices a habit ourselves and then encourage and educate others, particularly the young, about such practices.

Woody Allen’s wry metaphor is quite pertinent to this problem: “This year I’m a star, but what will I be next year? A black hole?” If we don’t take charge of our digital legacies, that well may be our digital fate.

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Crystal Sharp ( helps research teams write proposals for multimillion-dollar grants and new researchers publish and find funding. A past president of AIIP, she now serves on the London Heritage Council Board.


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