Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Death and Digital Assets

When my brother died in 2002, he left behind some interesting digital assets. They were mainly in the form of artwork he created in his spare time, but also included a personal web site and samples of graphics work he had done for a variety of companies. At the time, his employer's web site design was primarily the result of his creative work.

I now wonder where those assets are. It would be interesting, purely for nostalgic reasons as we get closer to the 5th anniversary of his untimely death, to look again at what he created. But I strongly suspect they have evaporated much like the web site we created as a memorial for him did when the company hosting the site went out of business (it was called; thankfully, I kept backups of the finished memorial web site).

With my recent catastrophic loss of data, as well as my recent medical history, not to mention the approaching anniversary of my brother's death, I've been thinking about digital assets and what happens to them after death. Then today, as I unwrapped my copy of Smart Computing magazine, my eyes were drawn to an article entitled, "Death & Digital Data: What Happens To What You Leave Behind?". The gist of the article is that it's not always clear who owns personal data in an online world. Even the most obvious situations may require litigation to secure assets of a loved one who has died. The case of Lance Corporal Justin Ellworth is an example of an online email company - Yahoo - trying to prohibit the family from retrieving the young man's personal email.

In corporate settings, it's not only the death of an employee that can raise these issues. A simply resignation or layoff can be the occasion for a review of ownership issues, not to mention consideration of what is the humane thing to do. This is especially the case with knowledge workers with corporate notebook computers which act as a repository for both personal and company data. Smart phones, Blackberries, and Pocket PCs are also part of the picture. Even if a company is progressive, for example, and strongly affirms that employees should have the right to retrieve personal data from company assets, if the employee has died, who is responsible for reviewing and separating corporate from personal data, for storing the personal digital assets and getting them into the hands of heirs?

Part of the obvious solution is to backup data, but that can be difficult with online email, web sites, and blog hosts. In my own case, for example, I'm still trying to find and execute reasonable backup utilities to preserve online digital assets like my blog sites and my photo sites (HTTrack WebSite Copier looks promising; Adobe Acrobat Professional also includes a utility for web site downloads).

And then there's online email. What about your hotmail, gmail, Yahoo egroup correspondence, etc.? Not that we'll all be famous after we die, of course, but even the correspondence of the not-so-famous can be extremely useful to historians and cultural analysts, not to mention the families who wish to preserve as much as possible of a deceased loved one's correspondence.

This digital age of ours means not only that we have more assets that will survive us, but that we have to take greater care to preserve those assets for our loved ones.


Anonymous said...

Hi there,

Yes, backing up digital info is very important. I have been reading about the online backup industry for a while now. Online backup is maturing and slowly getting the attention of the general consumer.

One website worth mentioning is the backup review site:

This very informative site, not only posts up to date news and articles from the industry, but also lists about 400 online backup companies and ranks the top 25 on a monthly basis and features a CEO Spotlight page, where senior management people from the industry are interviewed.

I enjoy reading your posts. Keep it up!

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