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Death, secrecy and online assets

30 May 2020 at 09:40hrs | Views
PEOPLE are advised and rightly so to ensure tight protection of their online data and other personal information held in electronic format. Protecting data helps against unauthorised access and criminal activities. However, few people consider the disadvantages of being overly secretive with personal information.

Security technology has advanced so much that electronic data and devices are impregnable with the use of biometric means like fingerprints, eye scans, face scans etc. However, all the secrecy and protection of data in the world can be detrimental in death if the user wants to pass on their digital assets. Valuable digital assets are often lost forever due to failure to access them.

It is important for people to plan for their electronic data acquisitions after they die, otherwise they will all simply go to waste. Shona people say "akafa nezvinhu zvake'' meaning the person died with their things. In addition to planning for the distribution of physical assets, people must also start planning for their digital estates. Even if it means only telling a trusted person what they own online it may be helpful.

Some things acquired online can be of such high value that they should not be left to just disappear, although they often do. It is not just about social media and email accounts but what they hold that may need to be preserved for posterity. This morbid conversation is ever more relevant in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic because the probability of death for every internet user has increased. One can be happily surfing the internet today collecting and posting photos and transferring money between their online bank accounts and be dead before the end of the week.

Portraz data shows more than half of Zimbabwe's population is connected to the internet. In 2018, 62,9% of the population had internet access but dropped to 57,2% in June 2019. Numbers are always steadily rising despite temporary dips. Many Zimbabweans are connected to the internet which they use for various purposes.

They are all accumulating highly valuable digital assets such as mobile bank and savings accounts, medical records, funeral policies — even virtual currencies such as Bitcoins
Digital assets include online bank accounts, books, films, music, photographs, insurance policies, email accounts, blogs etc.

Intellectual property may include blogs, articles, unpublished manuscripts, drawings, designs and musical compositions. Internet users spend years investing in digital assets which should not be left to merely vanish in cyber space. With the world increasingly going paperless, people are doing most of their work on their electronic gadgets and save it on the internet or on their devices. Even if assets are saved on the internet, it does not help if they cannot be accessed when the user passes on.

For valid security reasons, online data and gadgets are protected with personal identity numbers (PINs) or passwords or encryption. The only other way to access protected data is to use sophisticated illegal hacking methods. It is a double-edged sword — the vital need for data security and the need to make it accessible posthumously.

There is no easy prescription and for this reason, valuable online assets vanish into oblivion every single day worldwide. The best advice is to write a will and include directions on the distribution of valuable digital assets. However, passwords and PINs cannot be disclosed in wills and in any event they change at anytime so the discussion remains a grey area for which there are no easy answers.

After a person dies, their digital footprints live on eternally in the form of computer files and online data. If not closed, social media accounts live on indefinitely as dormant accounts. They may actually fade away due to non-use and be forgotten to the annals of cyberspace, but they remain accessible nevertheless. Some service providers delete accounts upon notification of a user's death or after defined periods of non-use. Account-holders should educate themselves about their particular account's death policies written in the fine print when opening the account.

Facebook has clear death policies. More than five million inactive Facebook accounts are attributed to death. To preserve the integrity of deceased users and avoid automatically generated posts, accounts are put into legacy mode if Facebook has been properly notified.

Accounts are closed or memorialised upon request from the executor or family members. Facebook users can appoint caretakers to administer their accounts though caretakers will have limited powers. Caretakers of legacy accounts can be appointed through a will or through an option provided by Facebook. Only the deceased's Facebook friends will be able to view memorialised accounts and share memories on the deceased's wall but all other functions and public posts will cease. Only authorised people can download material from deceased accounts in terms of a will or a court order. Authorised people can inherit and download photographs, books, games, videos, films or music collections from the memorialised Facebook account.

The law regarding the inheritance and distribution of digital assets is still developing worldwide. In Zimbabwe for now it can only be dealt with within the existing law of administration of estates. In developed countries, the preservation and inheritance of digital assets has spawned a new branch of law and a new industry.

The United States passed the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act or RUFADAA in 2015 and it is still under trial in many states. However what is certain is there should be some legal framework in place and personal awareness and action to deal with the preservation and access of the valuable digital assets of deceased persons.

Miriam Tose Majome is a lawyer at Veritas and she writes in her personal capacity. She can be contacted on and Twitter @MajomeMiriam.

Source - newsday
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