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Thursday, November 02, 2006

Taking Your Password to the Grave

My daughter works in IT security, and every now and then she forwards me an interesting link on some security-related topic. Most go right over my head — they abound in techspeak or are outside my realm of interest or expertise. A recent article she sent me, though, certainly got my attention. In Taking Passwords to the Grave, News.com's staff writer Elinor Mills probes the implications of failing to ensure that your loved ones have access to online passwords and other important digital identifying information.

When people fail to leave such information behind, family members are increasingly unable to access important data and, in some cases, to attend to estate business. Even notifying a loved one's email contacts can become problematic, since e-mail providers and other companies may be reluctant to give out such information, for privacy reasons. Mills recommends avoiding this problem by ensuring that passwords to e-mail, photo sharing, music sites and other online accounts are recorded safely somewhere, preferably in an estate planning document.

She cites the case of William Talcott, a prominent Irish/American poet, whose estate was paralyzed after he died because his daughter could not access his email account or online address book.

I had certainly never thought about this! Like many people, I derive income from the Web and do my banking and investing online. I have numerous passwords stored in my head (scary thought!), along with multiple email logins. Ditto with access to all the various sites where I shop, download software, upload images for sale, register web domains, post blog entries, and on and on. There are dozens of them, and I have not recorded this information anywhere. If I passed away tomorrow, my daughter would have her hands full sorting out my online life. She'd have to close accounts, cancel domains, cash in accrued revenue, pay outstanding fees, and on and on. Then there are decisions about intellectual property, such as all the photos and fractals I have uploaded to Flickr and elsewhere. Just thinking about it makes me tired.

This sobering article is worth a look, calling attention to a little loose end that many of us hadn't thought about.


HD_Wanderer said...

I hate to even think about how many places I've got passwords to that my spouse might need. Multiple web hosting services, 9+ e-mail accounts, etc.

Tisha! said...

That's a seriously important point, thanks for bringing it to our attention.


barbara said...

my daughter was killed 13 days after her 21st birthday. she had barely started using email and i know she wrote a letter to a friend online just before she died. it was yahoo. though i had her papers, and even a notation of her screen name and pw, they were wrong, and yahoo did nothing to help me though i appealed to them with the whole story and offered to provide any kind of proof they might require that i was her mother and that she had died.

and even so, i have not made anybody privy to my passwords. guess i ought to figger something out thataway...

Pam said...

I'm very sorry to hear about your loss, Barbara, and appalled at the response of Yahoo. This should be a wake-up call for all of us.

Nancy said...

4 years ago when my father died he was a few steps ahead of the rest of our family online.

While we were able to track down the major passwords and such, the worst part was trying to access pictures. He had started uploading photos to some online website and none of us could figure out where they were. He also hadn't backed up photos and it was just a real mess.

My mom is NOT a computer person so she wasn't any help and unfortunately the computer crashed not too long afterwards and we were left with only the pictures stored on the memory card. I know he had started journaling some of his life stories too, but we couldn't find those either.

Now I keep a notebook with all of that type info for my family. They might still encounter some problems, but hopefully it will make things somewhat easier.

Pam said...

Thank you for sharing your story Nancy. It should be a warning for all of us to take this issue seriously.

Mark Argentino said...

Very interesting and touching stories. This was a good post. I've saved all my passwords in my Roboform area, but I have a 16 character password to access the passwords. I've heard that it can be cracked, but will my family take the time or have the expertise to crack it. Somehow I doubt it. I will add this master password to my will in my safety deposit box.

Thanks for the reminder,

Pam said...

Good strategy Mark. Wouldn't want anything to happen to that Roboform file though ... I've got mine documented on paper, tucked away with other important documents, like my will, power of attorney, etc.