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Deciding what to do with a dead friend or relative’s online presence is complicated and time-consuming but there are shortcuts
Gavin Blomeley was lucky his mother was incredibly organised before she died. She left a note that included the passcode to her phone and access to all her online passwords.
“I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult this could have gotten not having these passwords or knowing this note with all of her passwords existed,” Blomeley says.
“In the note, my mum had an alphabetised, formula-based logic to all her passwords including banking, pensions, social media – everything.”
Untangling the web of someone’s online life after they die creates additional stress on top of grief and funeral planning, and it is getting increasingly complicated as more and more daily tasks are carried out online. There are bank accounts, email accounts, online bills and streaming subscriptions, as well as various social media accounts to consider.
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There is no one-stop-shop or single method to memorialise or delete accounts. Some companies, including Google, are now deleting accounts after two years of inactivity but there is no consistency across platforms.
“Facebook, in some ways, is probably actually pretty progressive and a leader in this space,” says Bjorn Nansen, a digital media researcher in the “death tech” team at the University of Melbourne.
“Over time, they’ve developed their policies; you can nominate a legacy contact, so that when you pass away that person … can follow your wishes, and either close your account or memorialise it.”
Nansen says other platforms don’t have the same policy.
“You just have to follow the same old workarounds, which is, you leave your passwords to somebody and your wishes as to what you want to be done with the accounts and content. Often, you’re breaching the terms of service.”
He says it is getting more complicated with the advent of two-factor authentication using biometrics to ensure that only the account holder can access the account.
Nansen says online companies should make the process easier but increasingly people are including directives in their will and this is likely to increase over time as baby boomers die.
“We’re entering a period that’s been referred to as ‘peak death’. The baby boomer bubble means there’s going to be a high volume of deaths and it’s always going to be the next generation that’s going to have to deal with it … it will make awareness of the issue wider and may help bring around change.”
Standards Australia says about 60% of Australian adults have made a will but not all of those have accounted for their digital legacy.
The nongovernment standards body is part of a group of organisations from 35 countries proposing core principles and guidelines for how organisations should manage the process when a relative or executor requests access to an account of someone who has died.
Adam Stingemore, general manager of engagement and communications at Standards Australia, says that means developing a common set of definitions that companies can then build into terms of service.
“The worst time to be dealing with a challenge like this is if you know someone in your family has died, and there’s a feud between parties,” he says. “What we want to do is get ahead of that on these different types of platforms. There’s common sets of questions and people can make choices about what happens to their data and assets.”
Nansen says another factor is the privacy of the person who has died, and whether they want personal messages and content to be seen by family members or deleted.
“There’s complexity and nuance,” he says. “You might have emails, you might have messages, you might have photos, you might have videos that for a whole range of reasons you might want deleted or not want certain people to see.
“If you really want to be thorough, it’s not just providing access and instructions to a digital executor; it might be quite detailed instructions about different platforms and different content.”
Blomeley says his best advice is to ensure power of attorney is arranged beforehand, and access to accounts included as part of a regulated will.
He says the process of shutting down his mother’s accounts was time-consuming, despite having all the passwords. It took several weeks to sort out, through the grief of losing his mother.
“Thankfully, we were all in a position where we were able to take time off work … but I can imagine this being much more complicated for certain individuals, based on varying circumstances.”



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