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I bequeath my passwords to…

Sibi Arasu | Updated on August 27, 2014

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More and more people are drawing up a digital will to specify who will inherit their personal data and other online assets after they are gone

About a year ago, Gautam John, a 35-year-old TED-fellow and Bangalore-based educationist, chanced upon an obscure Google policy blog that stated, “Not many of us like thinking about death — especially our own. But making plans for what happens after you’re gone is really important for the people you leave behind. So today, we’re launching a new feature that makes it easy to tell Google what you want done with your digital assets when you die or can no longer use your account.”

Called the Inactive Account Manager, it allows Google users to tell the internet behemoth what it should do with their personal data if and when they die or their account becomes inactive.

“For me it is the concept of the Dead Man’s Protocol (Switch) which led me to leave behind my online possessions to my wife,” says John. The Dead Man’s Switch refers to a switch that is operated automatically if the human operator becomes incapacitated. “Apart from the Google manager, I have also backed-up all my passwords, including those of my bank accounts, on a password manager site online, so my wife will have access to them in the case of my passing,” he says, adding that while this is not a formal will per se, it serves as a practical alternative.

Silence of the law

Currently, a digital will has no legal sanctity. Says Apar Gupta, who works for Delhi-based law firm Advani and Co and focuses on IT-related litigation, “At present, a digital will is not valid in India as a registered will. However, parties are always at liberty to adduce a will in a probate proceeding, and a court, based on the specific State law, may give it effect.”

Advocate and cyber law expert Pavan Duggal believes it’s time the law caught up with digital life. “In India, thousands of gigabytes of personal data go down the drain every day… people seldom plan how their data should be distributed (after their death) and there is really no legal provision to provide access to this lost data.” He blames this on the outdated Information Technology Act, which was enacted way back in 2000 and amended just once in 2008.

Under Indian law — Indian Succession Act, 1925 — anyone aged 21 and above can make a will in the form of a written document with two independent witnesses. But as N Vijayashankar, a techno-legal information consultant based in Bangalore, points out, “‘Digital property’ in India is not separately defined. What is defined in the IT Act is an ‘electronic document’.” In some situations, the laws of digital wills may have to be derived by interpreting the laws of property succession, he says.

Clearly, there are no great expectations yet for the digital will in India. As Gupta says, “Even though I am not averse to digital wills, the substantive law in India makes them unenforceable and null.”

The digital afterlife

Globally, however, the digital will has been enthusiastically embraced by many netizens. In Israel, Vered Rose Shavit began advocating digital wills after her brother Tal Shavit died in a road accident. She set up the blog Digital Dust after hackers stole her brother’s digital data a month after his death. “I wanted to raise awareness of the fact that we are all going to leave behind digital legacies and assets, of sentimental, emotional and financial value, and we should manage it. I also wanted to assist families that are going through the process of dealing with the digital legacy and assets of loved ones who have passed away, by providing them useful information such as technical guides and how-tos,” says Shavit.

There are companies such as Legacy Locker, passmywill.com, lifecapsule.be and others that offer spaces to store digital treasures or take instructions to pass on the digital details to loved ones after one’s death.

In an era where people lead full digital lives — from schmoozing on social media sites and shopping from e-tailers right down to the everydayness of paying household bills and banking online — a digital will assumes an importance all its own.

As Shavit explains, “It is up to each person how they deal with something like this, but what I do recommend is that we make these decisions while we are still alive and lucid, and not leave our loved ones to wonder what we would have wanted.”



Published on May 16, 2014

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