electronic devices after death?
February 9, 2014 6:18 PM   Subscribe

What happens to the contents on your computer if you're incapacitated? Would you (if you had some terminal illness, for example) wipe things, or do you think your family members would respect your privacy? Would you scour every bit of a loved one's computer?

Someone in my extended family has been seriously and unexpectedly injured and may not physically recover. Because we're around the same age and I'm reasonably computer literate, he asked that I take his computer in the worst case scenario so that his parents and girlfriend don't see its contents. While doing that would be impossible (I wouldn't imagine trying to explain that), I can bring it to him now or as soon as possible. This scenario gets me thinking (see question).
posted by flyingfork to Human Relations (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
To answer your questions:

I haven't given any directives about what happens to my laptop, but there is nothing particularly personal on there. It's not something that bothers me.

If I had a terminal illness, I'd probably clean up a few photos and emails, if I remembered.

I would expect my family members to protect my privacy.

No, I would absolutely not 'scour every bit of a loved one's computer'. I'd get someone more computer-savvy than me to wipe the hard drive, and then dispose of it according to the will.

Regarding your relative: can he still think and communicate? If so, I would bring his computer to him asap and ask him what he wants done with it, yes. I agree that you can't just take his computer after his death, without a clear written directive from him. So you need to deal with this while he's still alive.
posted by Salamander at 6:27 PM on February 9, 2014

What happens to the contents on your computer if you're incapacitated?

My best friend knows that if I die unexpectedly he is supposed to get my laptop and is free to use it to find any info he might need to help me, then wipe it/put it away for safekeeping.

Would you (if you had some terminal illness, for example) wipe things, or do you think your family members would respect your privacy?

I trust my friends and family members to respect my privacy. That's why I keep them in my life.

Would you scour every bit of a loved one's computer?

Good lord, no. If absolutely necessary I would check for info that I really needed to get my hands on (insurance information, etc.) but I would never pry beyond that.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 6:29 PM on February 9, 2014

I have left instructions with my family on what to do with all my electronic data. Whether they listen or not is a whole other matter, but I will be dead so...
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:40 PM on February 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would without-a-doubt scour every bit of a loved one's computer after death. I'm not proud of it, but I have a natural tendency toward snoopiness which I absolutely keep in check. But grief would most definitely knock it into overdrive. I'd want to see what photos s/he loved. I'd want to read her/his words again and again, even if it was a boring work email or a loving email to me. Or someone else.

Because people like me exist, please get that computer cleaned up.
posted by kimberussell at 6:43 PM on February 9, 2014 [22 favorites]

See also this question a little down the page.
posted by kimberussell at 6:45 PM on February 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm with JohnnyGunn -- I've got enough things to concern myself with just living, so I'm not going to worry myself much with what goes on once I'm dead.

So the issue is, what will help those left behind?

To which end, I'd encourage them to dig all they want, do whatever they want with what's sitting on all the various drives. I would not make a big deal about wiping everything clean. Information wants to be free, as they say, including mine.
posted by philip-random at 6:49 PM on February 9, 2014

See this question just a few back. I think a lot of people would go through their loved ones' computers, out of curiosity, to recover things they wrote and their pictures, to feel closer to them, to look through their email and find out what they really thought about things, to get tax and financial info, to figure out their passwords to Web services... There are so many reasons, both prurient and practical, that they might do so.
posted by limeonaire at 6:58 PM on February 9, 2014

Technological solution for those sufficiently motivated: encrypt all your files with a password known only to you, but keep copies of your financial information, passwords, etc in a separate encrypted file with the password distributed among trusted individuals using Shamir's Secret Sharing so that a consensus (e.g. two of three) is required to decrypt the file.

Depending on the probate laws in your jurisdiction, placing the password in a safe deposit box may be viable as well.
posted by djb at 7:44 PM on February 9, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just went through this recently with a friend and colleague who passed away suddenly. One laptop was not password protected so easy to get into quickly. Other locked in his office at work and probably pw protected. iPhone locked.

I sat with his sister (who I had just met) and we scoured every email box for people to contact before the funeral. That did turn up a few humorous contacts. Next, we ran a few keyword searches on the HD for important documents like contracts and insurance that we hoped to find. Then I checked out. No idea what the family did afterwards.
posted by Gotanda at 8:00 PM on February 9, 2014

When I finally get around to it, I'll have a sealed envelope placed in the care of a close friend that includes the password to my personal computer. On the computer, I'll have an obviously-labeled file that contains all the necessary information for bank accounts, insurance, family photos, friends to notify, all the good stuff, and a quick guide on how to wipe the computer so that [whomever I'm willing it to] can use it post-wipe.
posted by davejay at 8:30 PM on February 9, 2014

I live a terrible, terrible double life and do not expect my family to respect my privacy. I've appointed a trusted friend to act as a digital executor. If you search 'digital executor' you'll find more resources and services.
posted by Trivia Newton John at 9:42 PM on February 9, 2014 [6 favorites]

A friend of a friend did not fully wipe all of her devices before her death. When the contents were found, it was painful. It would have been better if the computer and phone had been carefully wiped of painful content, or if the deceased person had left a sealed letter of explanation and apology, to be opened by the relevant people if the painful content was discovered. Helping your relative clear whatever-it-is he's concerned they'll discover in his devices would probably be a kindness; they're likely to find it otherwise.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 9:52 PM on February 9, 2014

I have data of a sensitive nature on my laptop. Both sensitive to me and data that isn't up to me to reveal. All that stuff lives in truecrypt vaults mostly as a hedge against anyone stealing my machine but also to keep it from prying eyes in the case of death. My wife has the passwords for the information she might need.

In your situation you could just encrypt the disk. I like truecrypt but there are lots of options out there. If your friend recovers you can provide him with the key (or if you bring him the machine he can keep the key secret from even you but be aware that painkillers and anesthesia can have effects on memory) and if not his data is safe. You can even make use of the plausible deniability features of truecrypt to both supply the relatives with an encryption key and still keep his sensitive data safe.
posted by Mitheral at 10:37 PM on February 9, 2014

Stuff I wouldn't want to, or isn't mine to share is encrypted. Everything else people are welcome to look at. When I'm dead, I'm beyond caring about embarrassment, and if someone wants to get to know the real (digital) me a bit better, they have the opportunity. My family is level-headed enough to be able to deal with whatever they would find. I guess YMMV in a drama-prone family.

(being the only computer literate person in my immediate family implies they probably wouldn't even be able to log in to my computers. I should probably start keeping a list of important passwords somewhere for that purpose.)

I would also definitely search every bit of a (deceased) loved ones computer for memories, history and prized secret recipes.
posted by HFSH at 6:23 AM on February 10, 2014

The Dead Man's Switch might be helpful in this situation.
posted by southern_sky at 8:24 AM on February 10, 2014

When my 17 year-old cousin died by suicide a few years ago, his parents and brothers ran into this and disagreed with each other as to what to do. Out of his four brothers and two parents, they were split between wanting as much info as possible (hoping to understand his illness and last few months of life, most likely) and not wanting to invade his privacy. Same thing with his social media accounts.

I don't think I have anything I'd feel I'd need to wipe, but I would definitely wipe it if I did - I would expect at least some family members to fall on the "scour" side, as above.
posted by Pax at 9:07 AM on February 10, 2014

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