Open question: when a friend dies, what should her loved ones do with the data on her hard-drives? Assume that she has been using the Internet for more than a decade and has archived email, personal files, etc, on her machine(s), and has not expressed any particular wishes about this data. Assume also that the drives themselves are unencrypted. Discuss

86 Responses to “Data after a death?”

  1. Robert says:

    I assume that “loved-ones” means legal next-of-kin, and so they would inherit the data? As to what they’d do with the data… anything they want?

    • dragonfrog says:

      Well, that’s a good question – you can unquestionably inherit the physical disks on which the data is recorded.  But the data?

  2. CiaranD uffy says:

    I could see myself -possibly- looking at some of the files (music/film collection I mean). But, really, just put the HD in a box and put it somewhere safe.

  3. Marco N says:

    Depends on the personality of your friend. But imho the drives probably contain a lot of stuff that she didn’t want her loved ones to see, diaries, stuff she wrote down, later regretted but still kept around to remember. Some very intimate stuff could be on there, stuff that might even impact your feelings for this person.So in my opinion, you should either leave the drives themselves alone or destroy them.

    • ocker3 says:

       Perhaps a time capsule to be opened in 50 years, when any revelations will be less likely to ruin lives

      •  Love the idea, but how do you access the drive a half century later? I’ve got a box of floppy disks but no way to read them and it’s only been 15 years.

        • bcsizemo says:

          I have an Epson 5.25/3.5 combo floppy unit if you have a board that can even be set to access it…

          (I’ve also have an unopened box of Verbatim 5.25 floppies as well.)

    • bcsizemo says:

      Personally I keep all my HD porn on two flash drives set in a Raid 0 configuration.  That way you have to have both of them plugged in to get anything, and the speed boost is nice.

  4. bcsizemo says:

    Well if they were a fairly die hard nerd or computer person I’d probably bury/cremate/freeze them with it.  My wife wants to be cremated and I’m going to store her ashes in a persimmon Fiestaware disc pitcher…(she collects Fiestaware BTW).

  5. My first instinct, would be to just delete it. At least, that’s what I feel like I would want people to do for me if I were to die today. I don’t really have anything damning or embarrassing, but there’s nothing there I haven’t already provided.

    But… I could see harvesting some useful and meaningful data. Perhaps pictures, videos, notes, etc.

    Either way, it’s a tough call. Curious what others say.

    • CiaranD uffy says:

      My first thought was deleting/destroying too, but then I was thinking about how fascinating it is to come across personal items of people long dead. I agree about the sense of embarrassment but I think that wears off after a couple of generations :D

  6. matt perkins says:

    Mental note:  Install truecrypt tonight.  

  7. Henry Hill says:

    Bury/burn it with her. Presumably heaven will be able to find the right lead, because not being able to find the right lead is a kind of hell.

  8. Pepijn says:

    It would now belong to her heirs. I would say the most trustworthy one of them should keep it and curate the contents. Make a copy of things that are worthwhile to keep (photos, videos, materials that may be necessary to wrap up her affairs), then securely wipe the drive.

  9. Backup anything that is immediately important (or sentimental), then a good old Gutmann-35 out of respect.

    Glad I’m encrypted so my loved ones wouldn’t have to worry about that.

  10. Andrew Kay says:

    If I’m dead, please don’t destroy my unfinished music.

  11. Hugoku says:

    Turn it to a speaker for the dead.

  12. Jon Mooney says:

    I have all of the family photos and videos on my computer, so I would definitely not want the drives wiped.

  13. Omar Buhidma says:

    Follow these steps:
    1) Create 2 public/private  GPG key pairs
    2) Use one private key to encrypt the data.
    3) Use the other private key to encrypt the private key you encrypted the data with
    4) Give the encrypted private key to one curator who the deceased demonstrably trusted (or one pool of such trusted curators).  
    5) Give the unencrypted private key to a second curator who the deceased demonstrably trusted (or a second pool of such trusted curators).
    6) Give both public keys to both curators 
    7) Immediately duplicate the encrypted data on a number of different types of media, stored separately.  
    8) Immediately destroy the unencrypted data
    9) Unencrypt the data when all curators involved can agree that doing so is appropriate and when they can agree on what to do with the data.

  14. I would want someone to put archive it all on a server. 

  15. RobDobbs says:

    This is easy; you sit with your family and you root through it all and try to get a better understanding of who they where. My father died a couple of years ago and I’m still combing through the photos, old letters, books and errata. 

    Why would a hard drive be different?

    • Ashley Yakeley says:

      Agreed. This isn’t really a new issue.

      • Andrew Singleton says:

        Well for on-drive data that is wholly contained on a machine that the now dead person owned it’s a straight forward issue sure.

        Gets more complicated when you get into cloud data and remote servers and stuff that needs a login to get into.

    • dragonfrog says:

      Photos, letters, books – all those the person who created them, knew exactly what they were recording.  They wrote down what they intended to write down, and left out what they intended to leave out.

      Data doesn’t work like that.  Do you know whether the photographer knowingly and intentionally had the GPS turned on on their phone, recording the exactly time and location each picture was taken?  A web browser creates a history without express instructions from the user.

      I’m not saying your approach is a wrong one – just that data on a hard drive does have important differences from a box of letters, photos, and notebooks.

      • Antinous / Moderator says:

        A web browser creates a history without express instructions from the user.

        You should see what Amazon thinks I’m interested in after five years of checking links.

      • robdobbs says:

        I’m not sure why any of that matters. Especially after you’re dead.

        • dragonfrog says:

          Doesn’t matter much to the deceased, indeed.  The effect it could have on the living is the question.

          I guess what I’m after is, by choosing what to write down, you can choose what secrets to take to the grave, out of consideration for the living.  But quite often, the gadgets we use decide for us, for reasons far from obvious, what to write down.

    • Warren says:

      Given the kind of images I surfed the net for when I was an uber-horny twentysomething, had I been your loved one, I sure as hell wouldn’t have wanted you to see them – and you wouldn’t have wanted to see them either. Some things are TMI, and that includes masturbation habits.

      I’d think of hiring a third party, a trustworthy one, to sort through the data first, and pull out the stuff that might be problematic. No one wants to see grampa’s collection of Double-D Bukkakke Sluts.

  16. i_am_at_work says:

    If my partner dies before I do, I admit I would go through the files on her machine for a variety of reasons both personal and professional. In the end though it would become part of her memorial shelf. 

    @Cory, I recall a couple of years ago you had posted a thought piece on how to handle passwords when you die, specifically between partners. Did you ever come to a resolution?

  17. Antlan says:

    If a person is signed up for cryonics, at least with Alcor, they get a 1′ square box to store personal effects for the future. Place the drive there and let the person themselves decide later.

    • dumbbunny says:

      Well that settles it: first you’re going to have to freeze the body. 

    • Andrew Singleton says:

      The problem is the drive will physically degrade in that time so you have ot have some way of maintaining the data’s usability when that person gets unthawed and fixed (whenever that is.)

      • billstewart says:

         Software rot is a far more serious problem than media degradation – it’s hard enough to read most media formats from 30 years ago (9 track tape?  MFM drives?  DEC Massbus?), and most of the data formats are ill documented.  Think what it’s going to be like in 1000 years, when your data’s written in the Internet equivalent of Ogham or Linear B.

        • Pentashagon Pentashagon says:

           If we’re going to be putting 20th/21st century biology back together after it’s unfrozen I imagine some old technology won’t be a big problem to resurrect.

  18. John Falk says:

     Some time after one of my closest friend had died in a car accident back in may 2008, his family asked me fix his computer and reinstall it so that they they could use it. It was really tough for me, i postponed doing it for a long time. When i finally gathered the strength to do so, I couldn’t help but dig though the drives looking for messages or things his family might have wanted to save.

    Going through all the folders of pictures, workstuff and projects i got an eerie feeling of intruding on someone elses space, spying even, and i found myself just really wanting to find memorabilia. I came to the conclusion that it was all for the best to just leave it behind and wipe everything, as nothing on the computer would make us miss him any less.

    So i guess that’s my advice; unless there are important things to retrieve, just wipe it and appreciate the things you knew you had. Nothing will make you miss them less.

  19. Ethan Campbell says:

    If no deliberate step to protect data from relatives was taken, then it’s theirs to curate, otherwise, however inefficient the attempt to hide the data, it’s none of their damn business and should either be destroyed or kept for two to three generations down the line when it won’t alter the memory of the deceased in the mind of those who knew her.

  20. That_Anonymous_Coward says:

    Very few people plan for their demise, and this question comes up time and time again.
    I see people saying it would be embarrassing…  the deceased can no longer be embarrassed.
    I see people saying it might change their impression of the person… unless they were a closet cannibal are they not still the person you knew and loved?
    You might find out they disliked you… and now your aware of how your seen by others.
    You might discover a rich online life they never shared with you, people who could be just as impacted by the loss of a dear friend… but they don’t know what happened.

    Step 1 – Give yourself time to grieve.
    Step 1.5 – BACK IT UP, put the backup elsewhere.
    Step 2 – Open up the data and look around. 
    Step 3 – If they had someone close to them who is local ask them to help out as well.

    If they were close with people, email them.  Be very clear your not that person, but informing them of the circumstances.
    Curate the online accounts, we all keep secrets and sections of ourselves walled away.
    Share the pictures and video with friends and family, they might not have thought to get a copy of that one awesome picture of an event… because I can always get it next time I see you.
    If you think something you find is to upsetting for someone, set it aside.  One can always hand them a flash drive and say… You might not like what they had to say, only you can decide if you want to know or not.

    Hard drives and online accounts are the new shoe boxes full of memories people find in the home when a loved one passes away.  Remembering people is a way of holding onto that connection you have with them.  Being able to share common stories and feelings will help everyone move past a terrible event.

    If you just destroy all of the data you will one day wonder what was in there.
    If you look you might get upset for a moment… destroying all of those memories to avoid your feelings maybe being hurt by something you MIGHT discover seems so selfish.  You might come to understand them better…
    All sorts of things can happen, some good some bad but could they be any worse than how losing this person from your life made you feel?

  21. cubby96 says:

    If you are a trusted enough friend to a) be the executor for a friend that has passed or b) you have possession of their digital items through some other means, modern common sense should behoove you to, in the case of a): plow through it and distribute the data to their loved ones as appropriate, or in the case of b): get the data to such a person as described in a). 

    Also, hide the porn from the parents/grandparents/kids/grandkids, etc. if necessary and don’t spread things that might cast the deceased in a light that would have displeased them, unless of course, they deserve it (rapists, murderers, etc.).

  22. Zod says:

    Perhaps this an untapped market. Obviously there are things that a family or friend could care less about on a hard drive. And with hard drives now in the terabyte range, there could be a lot of stuff to sift through. I know for one, I have several terabytes of drives on several different machines in my house.
    Maybe write a piece of software that will go through a hard drive and sift through the crap and bring up the stuff that “looks” important…I don’t know what that criteria would be though… maybe based on prelim questions and who you are…perhaps different files if you’re a close relative or not…or a friend, or police…

    • gracchus says:

      As I was writing my comment below, I was thinking the same thing, except in terms of a human consultant or service. Sort of like those companies that clean up crime scenes or corpses.
       It needs a combination of disinterest and human judgement. With the aging population, this could be a growth industry.

      I’ve thought somewhat ahead myself. I keep my porn on an external drive labelled clearly as such, personally intimate (but not necessarily naughty) confidential files on an encrypted thumb drive, and passwords in an encrypted file with the password stored with a trusted person. The rest can be rummaged through by anyone without any real harm (except to those with good taste in music).

  23. dejadee says:

    This comment thread has inspired me to move all of my porn to a separate “destroy upon death” hard drive.

  24. gracchus says:

    The goal here is to protect the privacy of the deceased and spare the feelings/sensibilities of survivors, while preserving useful or sentimental data related to the deceased’s public persona.

    One solution would be to find or hire a  trusted third party who didn’t know the deceased personally or professionally. Get the surviving kin’s or estate executor’s permission for him to go through the hard drive to salvage a limited number of items for disposition in a limited number of ways. Some examples:

    1. Important passwords and files relevant to the deceased’s estate (personal financial records, scans of birth certificates and passports, password files, etc) — should go to executor or nearest surviving kin. Web site passwords should be used to shut down accounts or, when available, turn them into memorial accounts.

    2. Family photos and videos — should go to nearest surviving kin for curation and distribution.

    3. Personal photos and videos (G-rated, public events) — archived, perhaps posted on closed Web site for sorting and tagging by family and friends.

    4. Personal work/hobby files (e.g. musical compositions, manuscripts in progress, photography projects, Web sites, major academic projects, notes and research etc.) — archived to be held by executor or heirs.

    5. Professional work files (e.g. freelance projects, work taken home) — transferred to executor or employer/clients as appropriate.

    6. I’m sure others here can add ideas.

    After that has been salvaged onto separate media, wipe the original hard drive. Archived e-mail and chats are personal and private, as are browser bookmarks and history. Same goes for diaries and journals of non-public figures. Personal collections of movies and music and ebooks and LOLcat pics and, of course, porn aren’t unique enough to require archiving for posterity.

    If this is regarding the loss of a friend or family member, Cory, my condolences.

  25. Tom Henthorn says:

    As an athiest, believing that you return to the dust whence you came upon death (and nothing more), I don’t see any problem in loved ones looking through a person’s data after that person has died. Personally, I wouldn’t care if my loved ones did after my death, because I don’t expect to be “around” in any meaningful way to object to their actions.

    And honestly, even if there is an afterlife, would people in heaven really have a problem with this? The way I imagine heaven, it seems like you would be okay with pretty much anything that happened back on earth (if you are completely enlightened to the secrets of existence, it probably isn’t going to matter much that your friends found your porn or your lame poetry). You’ll just think “good for them, I hope they enjoy both”, and go on feeling infinite bliss.

    • billstewart says:

      You may not object on your own behalf, but you may have concerns about people still living.

      Your lame artistic poetry?  Maybe your family and friends will enjoy it, maybe they won’t.  The love poetry you wrote to your current significant other?  He/she might want them, or might want to keep them private.  The love poetry and hostile breakup email you wrote to your ex, who’s still around?  Back in the days of dead trees and carbon paper, my wife and her brother decided that the letters their (long-divorced) father had exchanged with his various ex-girlfriends were in a category that is now called “Too Much Information” and ditched them mostly unread, but you might want different handling for your relationships.

  26. Jaye Sunsurn says:

    I take a page from Mark Twain here… 
    he wrote something and he asked for it to be held 100 years before publishing, to take the sting from it. Its sound advice its not that the data isn’t worthwhile, it just could be scandalous to people in the now, 5, 10, 20 years… maybe let the next generation handle it, where such information can be of value of understanding the family, but removed that it wouldn’t have the sting about it. Obviously such curators might have instructions to encrypt and hide things for their own sake stuff that might have been legal today but banned or criminal tomorrow (like archived back up of video ripping software… totally useless in the future but who knows it might get you time in prison despite how useless it is).

  27. Chris Heinz says:

    Pull the hard drives out of the machine, stick them in a box or a drawer.  For posterity.

  28. senorglory says:

    pRon.   

    oh god.  

  29. Depends on the person, and what they did. We’re working on something like this for a friend of mine who died eight years ago — he was someone who created a LOT of songs and art, and the family has just now stopped reeling enough from the loss to be thinking about creating some sort of internet repository for a lot of the unreleased stuff that his fans and friends might like to see.

    I think that it’s probably best to just erase things that are not in “documents” or “design” or similarly labelled folders, though. Personal emails are probably just as best kept personal. Unless we’re talking about a writer, where their letters might be worth keeping just for their eloquence, especially if it’s someone who might have fans.

    It’s a very personal, individual question, and I think it varies a lot from person to person…

    • Jaye Thompson says:

       “It’s a very personal, individual question, and I think it varies a lot from person to person…”

      I think this sums it up.

  30. Digilante says:

    The contents of a hard drive represent thousands, if not tens of thousands of hours of work and effort by the owner. Just because it’s digital, it’s not worthless [in any sense of the word]. You don’t set fire to your grandma’s house after she passes, do you? You sift through it, throw out a lot, but keep the stuff that is useful, valuable, and memorable. I believe such a task is also part of the healthy grieving process. As for people finding out unpleasant things… Well, that just makes the deceased more human. Nobody’s perfect.

  31. Also, I think that, much like I’ve heard that a lot of folks have a trusted friend who is tasked with removing embarassing things from their house (sex toys, etc.) after or near their death, we should all have trusted friends to remove that sort of thing from our hard drives.I know that when I was going through a rather scary surgery a few years ago, I made sure that all my important passwords were in a file easily found by my family (something that was very difficult after my friend’s passing), and that my hard drives were cleaned of anything embarassing.But we’re not all so lucky as to be able to have any warning of our deaths, to put things in order, so a friend with that task is probably a good idea…

  32. h knox says:

    My husband died a year ago. I was left with cell phone, computer, several email accounts, linked-in, FB etc. I shut down his linked-in, switched the FB to a memorial page, monitored his emil for a while for business. But his HD I have just left. I searched it for the first while but he didn’t keep stuff; so i’m not sure why I’ve not wiped it yet.

    • mrmrdean says:

      Because there is no rush. 

      I still have a hard-drive with all my late-wife’s files on them and that was four years ago. The minutia of a loved one is a tricky thing to process.

      I initially kept it because you never know when you might have to delve back for some vital information. With time I have come to understand that I kept it because I have lost enough for the time being. 

      However technology moves on and it would’t easily be connected to my current computer. One day it will again be just a hard drive, an out-dated one at that, and not as it was at the start, a collection of thousands of small files that together presented me with a desperate glimpse of the personality I was missing so much.

      And that’s OK by me.

  33. I have a text file of my user names/passwords which I keep forgetting to pass on to my nearest, dearest friend with instructions, plus a page on mydeath.net. It’s an important issue to which, as the digital milieu is still relatively novel, few of us have given thought

  34. what kind of electronic media will last the longest without degrading? how should my electronic detritus be stored for future generations? looking for something that doesn’t have a monthly fee.

  35. Seraphim_72 says:

    My brother took his life six years ago. He was a cop and wanted to be one his entire life from childhood on. Serpico – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serpico  was his hero.  He was also a Poet and prolific journalist (in the classic sense – he kept a daily journal). He left these to me, to one day pass down to his children. I had to almost hire a lawyer to get them from his (2nd) wife. I opened a few of the journals after I got them, read a few pages, and vowed that his children would never see them. I would gladly give them to an interested grandchild of his, but some things are too close to home. Without context the written word is far too complex. He wrote an entire book of poetry just for me, I have never read it and most likely I never will. It is for my children to read, remember, and love, not me.

    Cory, I assume this is your friend that passed away unexpectedly. I assume he has no heirs. If that is the case, my suggestion is to save what few bits off his drives that may be important to people and delete the rest. The drives won’t last forever even sitting on a shelf and archiving this is nothing that you will ever do as it takes a herculean effort. I have two boxes of my brother’s writings, poetry, and a few photographs. To take them from me you would have to kill me. At the same time, they are a millstone I would rather not have. Sometimes memories are better than cold hard facts.

  36. planettom says:

    What occurs to me is, I’ve got boxes of many old data DVDs, old CDs, probably still some floppies, zip drives, etc.  All badly labeled.   3 to 4 computers, depending on how you count questionable hulks in closets.   In the event of my demise, some relative’s attempt to even look through my stuff  would be such a time sink and such a low signal to noise ratio that they would soon give up….

  37. nosehat says:

    I’ll add something I haven’t seen on the comment thread yet. 

    Several people have suggested destroying archived email/chat transcripts/etc, unless your deceased friend is a writer or otherwise of literary interest.  However I think that even if there was nothing particularly noteworthy (from a literary or “public figure” perspective) about your friend’s life, her accumulation of private correspondence, notes, diaries, documents, etc still might be of tremendous to a historian 100 years from now, much like the Civil War letters are of historical interest now, particularly because they were written by ordinary people and as such provide a unique window on lived experience at the time they were written.

    It would be nice if there were a library or well-curated archive project that could accept deceased people’s digital lives as donations, and store them safely for a few generations until they can be safely published.  Is anyone aware of such a project?

  38. Dan Gordon says:

    If your friend left behind a suitcase full of papers, what would you do with that? As someone with a history bent, I’d really encourage people to preserve their personal things for future generations, and I don’t think digital things are any different. Easier to store because they’re more compact, more difficult to preserve because they degrade more over long periods. I’d probably take the personal and/or interesting bits (probably only a small percentage of the data) and store it along with my own personal data that gets backed up regularly and moved to new media over time. If it’s not integrated into some kind of ongoing maintenance process, then you might as well throw it out. The hard drive in the drawer isn’t going to be any use to anyone in fifty years’ time, probably.

    • Andrew Pam says:

       Or even twenty years time.  I can still use a hard drive from ten years ago, but one from twenty years ago is… difficult.

  39. caitifty says:

    I think the interesting thing about this question isn’t so much ‘what to do with the data’ – as many have already pointed out, that question is as old as people dying and leaving behind a box full of diaries and other personal effects which might or might not have been deeply personal.  The ‘new’ question is how to make sure whatever is on the person’s computer is actually available to their kids and grandkids and distant decedents.  Throwing Samuel Pepys’ diaries in a box for a few generations so his nonstop sexual harassment of the servants didn’t case pain and distress to his wife and kids and so on makes a lot of sense, but we’d be a poorer world if someone had decided to burn them.  Problem is, if we’d pulled the HDD from his PC and thrown that in a box for a few generations, chances are it’d be unrecoverable and useless.  With contemporary digital technologies, *someone* is going to have to take the effort to make dupes of the HDD every 5 or so years, covert the old versions of word documents to current versions (let’s assume Pepys just used MS Word like everyone else instead of making the conscious decision to use a non-proprietary digital format with some vague likelihood of being readable in a decade let alone a century), and so on.  In short, you *can’t* put a deceased person’s digital personal effects aside for a few generations at the moment – it *requires* ongoing care and curation, which raises new and difficult personal and ethical questions.

    Possibly the only ‘ethical’ answer would be to hire a third party to take the hard drive, pull everything off it, and convert it all to formats that are likely to be readable in 50 years, so those near and dear to the deceased can choose to look at it now or leave it for future generations.

  40. billstewart says:

    Don’t know about you, but other than music (which nobody’s going to care about), software (likewise), photographs (which hopefully my family would like), the important data on my computer is financial. You really do need to be sure that your spouse or kids can access all the bank records, the tax programs, the stock portfolio, especially the ones that are less obvious (like that retirement account at the bank you used to use, etc.) Also, your correspondence with your friends may not be important to anybody else, but it probably has some overlap with the people who’ll want to know if you die.

  41. Sebastian Bassi says:

    What if he has a Bwin or Paypal account with lot of money on it? I would search high and low for any password and gather whatever information I could use for myself.

  42. Marc Mielke says:

    The forward-thinking family could have a bank of HDs, each named for its owner, set up for a designated family archivist to maintain and permit limited access to friends and associates as needed/required. There might be a lot of data that other people might like to have (photos of them and the diseased, collaborations) or even require (valuable work or research). 

  43. One aspect that should be considered is possibility of illegal/subversive content being on the hard drive.  Obviously those terms mean different things in different nations/states.  Once you’ve taken possession of the drive it is going to be difficult to prove that you are not the one who placed that data on the media.  This is one of the many reasons why you must maintain chain of custody and create a ghost image of the drive before you even begin forensic work.  To protect yourself you need to be able to prove that the data was never modified by yourself.  Not to mention, it’s nice to have a backup in case you screw up your data retrieval or the media dies.

    Keep in mind that not all people are fully in control of their computers.  They may have been hacked and it may be hosting a chatroom where illegal exchanges are occuring.  The last time I saw that occur was 4 years ago and computers are only getting faster all the time.  

    Also, I would totally quarantine the media from any known networks when you’re performing analysis.  

    Xeni’s tweeted lately, so I sure as hell hope this isn’t all about her.  I would say this, if it’s a hardcore geek and you find a ton of drives unencrypted and they had a long-term illness I’d consider a lack of encryption as an invitation.

  44. Jacob Ewing says:

    A similar thought occurred to me when I was a teenager and fighting cancer (I won, thanks).  By that time in my life I had been programming for years, and had a lot of work on my 40 megabyte hard drive that I wanted to share.  I was planning on giving it to a similarly geeky friend if it ever came to that.

    Personally, I’m more concerned now with what would become of my web pages.   How long would the domains be paid for and hosted?  Ultimately, I guess they’ll just be a few more pages on the Internet Archive.

  45. Calladus says:

    I would like to see all data from every deceased person’s hard drive archived on a publicly accessible database, but kept encrypted for 150 years after that person’s death – whereupon it is decrypted and opened to the public.

    How this is done to protect privacy of the deceased’s peers during the interim… I don’t know.
    But think of the wealth of data that could be mined in the future!

  46. Laura Conrad says:

    I dealt with this a few years ago, and I think I just put all the obvious stuff (pictures, documents…) on my hard drive.  So my heirs will have to deal with hers as well as mine.

  47. Sarah Wilson says:

    I would definitely go through it. Partially – okay, mostly – because I’m incredibly nosy. But also because I’ve grown up watching my father dig through old photos/letters/journals from his parents and grandparents – it’s fascinating what you learn about people. Sure, some of it will be embarrassing and possibly even hurtful, but it will allow you to learn more about your loved one, and give you a means to share that person with younger family members who never got to know them personally. So much of our history is learned through old letters and photos; future generations will be reviewing old hard drives.

  48. Glenn Hauman says:

    Having had to do this in the past, one crucial piece of advice: try and figure out all the passwords now, while hints may still be fresh in other people’s memories. Trying to remember Joe’s first dog’s name five years after he died will be almost next to impossible.

    Beyond that, as always, care and discretion. Taking on the task makes you, in many ways, responsible for that person’s life.

  49. Joseph Galbo says:

    My aunt has left me very specific instructions about what to do with her computer after she dies. Mostly it’s notifying her online friends that she has passed away, and destroying her hard drive. I imagine more people should consider putting these types of instructions in their will.

  50. Jules Hall says:

    Clearly companies like Legacy Locker have the right idea with a detailed plan, passwords and other info to be passed on in the event of your death.

    Death Reference Desk http://deathreferencedesk.org/ has some great articles related to death and the modern world. Things like Facebook and Twitter creating memorial modes for the deceased user.

  51. Josh Gross says:

    I read an article about this topic a while back, maybe on Slate. The article compared inheriting a hard drive to inheriting material possessions when a loved one dies. But the problem is that we accumulate a lot more stuff digitally; old hard drive data is copied over to our new, bigger hard drives when we get new computers. So our heirs will inherit an incredible amount of unwanted stuff, pictures, files, emails, etc., that really were unwanted and could have been deleted, but because of ever-increasing storage space were never dealt with.

  52. Amelia_G says:

    This is paranoid, but since George W. Bush’s administration I have assumed that deleting the information you have saved at home won’t be the end of it. That some day, due to the unhappy accidents that provide rare historical evidence about day-to-day life, like Early Modern coroner testimony, Alltagsgeschichte gleaned from witch trials, and the Monica Lewinsky scandal, our descendants will be reading our emails and listening to our phone calls.

  53. teapot says:

    Look at it… how cool and fascinating is other people’s stuff? If it’s not gone through you will never know what was there and what should be kept. The longer you leave it before going through the drive’s contents the higher the likelihood the data will be unrecoverable.

    I don’t think there’s really an ethical problem in going through the information as that is what happens with data’s real-world analogues. If a person dies and you inherit their personal effects or possessions then it is likely you will go through them (including photo albums and diaries) and determine what is useful or valuable and what would serve someone else – or a fire – better.

  54. tideflying says:

    I am an academic and I certainly wouldn’t want them wiped — I’d want the files passed on to someone in my field who is working in my area and could use them. 

    My husband had a nightmare once in which I had died and my colleagues called him together and told him he had to finish the book I was working on. So, not him — someone else! I think he could figure out who it should be, though, and what folders were worth bothering about, and when he was able to do that.

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