Some of the key events of life have corresponding identity management and planning dimensions: birth, gaining capacity, marriage, losing capacity and finally, end of life. In the paper and bricks world, a series of well understood “gates” exist related to these and other key lifecycle events. How will these important milestones be supported and reflected in the realm of digital identity and online life?
One aspect of this broader question that is raising urgent and important issues is the death of an online service account holder and the lack of clear or consistent practices and expectations around how to address that inevitability. I’m very pleased to be collaborating with Evan Carrol and John Romano of the ground breaking blog The Digital Beyond. These guys literally “wrote the book” on the topic of end-of-life issues with online identity and affairs, called Your Digital Afterlife. It’s not only the best book on the subject because it’s still the first and only volume, it’s the best because it is a comprehensive, concise and high quality work. I am honored to have the following remark imprinted on the back cover:
Death is the final frontier of cyberspace—and this book provides a road map to the key issues, problems and future prospects for bridging this ultimate transition with dignity, security and grace.
Today, John and Even and I are collaborating on a new site to provide important information and resources for estate and end-of-life planning professionals and people with an interest in the subject. The site: Digital Estate Resource includes a wide range of perspectives and information, including legislation in several states directly addressing the transfer of online accounts to executors of estates and other relevant law, regulation and policy.
Updating Public Policy and Public Infrastructure
The institutions and processes in place today are strained. For example, the Social Security Administration’s so called “Death Master File” is shared in ways that actually harm privacy and consumer protection. And yet, access to information on what users of digital systems have died, and what new applicants for accounts and services are linked to identities of deceased people, is essential. This article addresses some of the issues: http://idanalytics.com/idalabs/2011/keep-the-death-master-file-alive/ In the future, as “Digital Public Infrastructures” are created to ensure the mass-scale operation of core societal functions, perhaps these types of records will be available as a public service – literally a type of web service – whereby a request can be made (a query) and a “yes” “no” response can be transmitted to check if a person with that identity (or better yet, a personae linked to a core-id of that person) is dead or alive. Similarly, an RSS style “update” service could be subscribed to so any agency or company could be notified when one of their account holders has passed away and could check if new applicants for accounts on their systems are linked to identities of dead people. As states enact legislation and slowly society addresses the range of implication of identity, such public infrastructure will eventually be a key component of a reliable system.
If you’d like more information on this topic, feel free to contact me. Also, there is a community forming through the ID Commons to further explore the relevant issues, and they hold a regular conference called Digital Death Day.