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    Washington Post: Web sites let online lives outlast the dearly departed

    The Washington Post reports on Web sites that focus on secured, private “digital safety deposit boxes” to be opened after a person’s death.

    San Francisco-based Legacy Locker, is one of a dozen businesses that have sprung up to help denizens of the digital world grapple with the thorny issues raised after your physical being leaves behind only its virtual reality. Internet experts and estate planners say a cybercrisis is brewing because popular Internet services have policies that, barring an order from a court, forbid accessing or transferring accounts — including recovering money — unless someone has the password.

    The legal fog affects not only personal lives — the photo site Flickr has 40 million members — but also millions of business accounts on such sites as eBay and PayPal and the virtual community of Second Life, which generated $55 million of real money for users last year. Despite our increasing reliance on cloud computing — storing all sorts of data online through Web applications — very few Internet users have begun to think about what happens to all that data should we get hit by a bus.

    “We haven’t truly seen the breadth of this issue play out yet, but I’m telling you, this is a huge problem,” said Chicago lawyer Karin C. Prangley, who has spoken on the topic at conferences. “Ten or 15 years ago, someone could go into your house and find the paper trail if you die. Now the paper trail is online.” […]

    Service providers offer varying degrees of helpfulness in such situations.

    Some, like Google, will unlock e-mail, video, photo and shopping accounts if family members have a death certificate and a previous e-mail sent to them by the departed. The process can take a while. Facebook will close accounts if hoops are jumped through; otherwise, the account goes into “memorial” mode, meaning it’s still out there but most features are disabled.

    Other providers are more stringent. Second Life will not transfer an account unless there is a will, court order or other relevant legal documents. Yahoo, with 106 million e-mail users, is perhaps the toughest. In a statement, the company said, “Internet users who want to be sure their e-mail and other online accounts are accessible to their legal heirs may want to work with their attorneys to plan an offline process for such access as part of their estate planning process.”

    Similar rules apply to the firm’s popular photo-sharing site, Flickr. Asked whether pictures would remain online unless the user leaves other instructions in a will or gives the password to someone else, a Yahoo spokeswoman said, “Yes, that is correct.”

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