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The digital trail you leave behind: Companies being born out of death

AUSTIN I left a recent conference on interactive Web ideas thinking about death.

After attending a panel called Who Will Check My E-Mail After I Die? I pondered the digital trail I will leave behind. Would my e-mails and Facebook page still be around in 100 years? And, more importantly, do I want them to?

As the Web-consumed begin to die, they leave behind a huge amount of data about how they lived their lives detailed in Facebook pages, Twitter messages, Quicken spreadsheets, videos and e-mails.

How digital assets are handled after death is such a new concern that hardly any laws are on the books addressing it. Estate planning attorneys say the person who is left in charge of personal affects is often given this responsibility.

The question is who owns it and who doesn t, said Matt Ludwig, one of the speakers on the panel.

Companies such as Yahoo (which also owns photo-sharing site Flickr ), Google and Facebook have the authority to delete e-mail accounts and Web sites after a user dies.

New York attorney Ramon Fichman, who advises technology startups, said users right to privacy dies with them. A company has no legal obligation to stop someone else from viewing e-mails or private blogs, he said, but companies are wary of wading into battles between different family members who want access to the same e-mail account or blog site.

Google s policy, for instance, is that after nine consecutive months of inactivity, the company can delete the account and all messages within it.

Practically speaking, though, we don t push to actively purge dormant accounts; we just reserve the right, Google spokesman Jason Freidenfelds said.

But when it comes to a deceased person s e-mail account, it isn t always easy to gain access.

Google s Gmail service requires a copy of a death certificate and a copy of a power of attorney document or birth certificate, as well as an e-mail sent from that account, to open a user s account.

Other e-mail providers emphasize their commitment to privacy . Yahoo said it makes a commitment to e-mail users that it will treat their e-mails as private communication, spokesman Jason Khoury said. If a user dies, representatives of the deceased person can get the e-mail account shut down, Khoury said, but accessing the account is restricted by federal law.

Fichman said he wasn t aware of any federal regulation that prohibits Yahoo from sharing an e-mail account after a user dies.

The problem begins when there is no clear directive between who will have access, he said.

Austin estate planning attorney Ron Greening said clients often come to him in need of access to computers left behind by loved ones. They are often taken to data recovery specialists.

It s a problem, Greening said. Some clients want access to a computer because they need financial information contained in it.

What can be recovered is surprising: trails, embarrassing Web sites and Google searches, ancient Word documents even passwords.

The owner of Austin-based Flashback Data said almost anything left behind on a computer or memory card can be found.

Even some passwords to Internet sites such as Facebook can be recovered, depending on whether they are stored by the Internet browser, Flashback owner Russell Chozick said.

We have seen some cases where someone will have somebody that passed away and they have pictures of them lost and they need to recover that, Chozick said, adding that the company can also find deleted files.

Of course, many companies see one person s problem as a business opportunity.

Companies such as Legacy Locker and Asset Lock allow clients to compile digital assets, like a Facebook page or a blog, and bequeath them to someone after they die.

Other companies, such as GreatGoodbye.com , allow someone to send a digital message after death to a friend or relative.

Ludwig, the Interactive panelist, wants to start a company that would be similar to GreatGoodbye.com but fully automated, so the trigger to send the message would occur without a friend or loved one lifting a finger.

While working on graphic design and brand strategy, Ludwig said, he began wondering what happens to the bread crumb trail to your online existence.

How digital information is stored and archived has become a significant issue for bloggers who ultimately have minimal control over what happens to the content written on sites such as WordPress.com or Blogger.com.

Ludwig said that it s important to back up work that is published online, including photography. For many bloggers, there is no archival system in place like there is for newspapers.

The columnist and the blogger are exactly the same, he said. The difference is the host for the columnist. They archive all that stuff, and the blogging service doesn t.

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