Focus: Generations Do we really want to know everything?

Do we really want to know everything?

Our author’s father died and left her not only some books, some shirts and a house, but also Facebook and Amazon accounts and other vestiges of his online identity. But how do you handle a digital legacy – and how do you end an online existence?

My grandma collects everything. You can’t sit down on the settee in her kitchen because it’s covered with piles of old newspaper clippings, heaps of handkerchiefs for the next century and stacks of paper tea-bag wrappers. She uses the paper wrappers to jot down important things like “Pia’s going away soon to ???”, which she then leaves on the table. This note has been gathering dust on the table for years because of course I repeatedly go away to ??? Sometimes I used to stand in this kitchen, shake my head and wonder, “Why? Just throw it all away.”

Since my father died, I’ve learned to appreciate my grandma’s passion for collecting tangible objects. My father was quite the opposite. The older he got, the less he possessed. When we set about dividing up his estate after his death, besides the house he lived in itself, only a few personal effects remained: his old spectacles, a couple of well-thumbed books, some faded shirts.

And then there was of course his Facebook diary, Amazon orders history and a list of his unsuccessful eBay bids. At least we knew they existed in theory, but all we had in front of us was an old black laptop and three hard disks. We also had some ring binders containing insurance policies that had expired at the turn of the millennium; brochures for bank accounts he’d opened, but not a single statement; and a list of cryptic number combinations – but to what we hadn’t a clue.

At some point my father went digital and started organizing his whole life on the computer. If I could crawl into his laptop, it would probably look just like my grandma’s kitchen inside – except that in her case it’s easier to tell what to throw into the big shredder and what to keep. So that posed a problem.

At least my father hadn’t changed his password in years. My siblings don’t know a thing about computers so they sat me down in front of the laptop. It felt like I was re-sitting my big school-leaving exam in practical philosophy, grappling with the question why Achilles could never catch up with the turtle if he gave it a head start. Such a simple question, but impossible to answer. “Look for the electricity supplier so they don’t cut off the power,” said my sister. “I need to know how many bank accounts he actually had,” said my mother. “Can you see where the car is insured?” asked my brother.

What do I do first? Ask Google, of course. The Google god knows all. But I’ve only just typed the three little letters “www” in the browser window when a bunch of sites are suggested that I wouldn’t even want to know my father ever visited. So, back to the drawing board: what do I do first? Delete browser history. Every human being has a right to privacy, even the dead. At least I think so.

Do I really want to know what my father was up to when he wasn’t being my father? When he was being a man or an online gambler or a nerd? “Family and friends often don’t realize all the things that can be part of a digital identity,” says Christopher Eiler. Eiler and his brother have set up Columba, a service that handles “digital legacies”. Columba have developed software that combs the internet for memberships, contracts and subscriptions, user accounts and profiles, and cancels, deactivates/deregisters, deletes or transfers them – or keeps them up for commemorative purposes. Back when my father passed away, I’d never heard of Columba. The team there have handled a hundred thousand cases since 2013. They’re the digital version of a service undertakers have always undertaken: to take care of the formalities.

“Your average deceased has a dozen memberships and contracts,” says Eiler. And that figure’s bound to rise, for the first generation to grow up with Facebook and social media are only in their forties now.

My father was a so-called “early adopter”, a pioneer who jumped on every trend. We already had a Commodore computer back in the early days as well as Btx (Bildschirmtext), a forerunner of the internet, but an offspring of videotex. And we had one of the first mobile phones around, it was the size of a briefcase. On his last computer I find e-mails from Facebook, PayPal, eBay and Amazon, which I go ahead and read: his e-mail programme has no password. I feel rotten doing this, as though I were doing something taboo. This is all none of my business, I think to myself, as I initiate my father’s digital death, a few weeks after his physical death in the real world.

I write to social networks, online retailers and newsletters. On second thoughts, no, let’s forget about unsubscribing to the newsletters, too time-consuming and trivial. Who cares whether there’s one more non-active subscriber on the mailing list or not? At some point I’ll delete my father’s e-mail address and the sender will receive a bounce message.

Deleting accounts isn’t all that easy, there’s no standardized procedure. Some services mention death at the tail end of their FAQs, others I have to call and hold the “hotline” for hours, still others involve an idiotic chat with an automatized bot that just makes the whole thing more complicated. Writing to a machine about a dead human being? It’s grotesque – and yet it’s only the beginning: a murky maze of red tape follows. After a while I start feeling like an admin worker just running down a bucket list of who requires what: death certificate, ID cards, certificates of inheritance, statements from all the heirs authorizing me to do what I’m trying to do. Every service-provider wants a different combination of documents. I decide to deal with one account per week, I don’t have the patience or staying power for more than that.

I wish my father had named an executor on Facebook, as is now possible. Or named someone on Google to be notified as next of kin if the worst came to the worst. They call it an “inactive account manager”. Or that he’d left all his memberships with a digital secretary, as offered by some websites. Or, for all I care, that he’d left bits of papers everywhere, like my grandma, listing accounts and passwords on old tea bag wrappers. But who, pray tell, when still hearty and hale thinks about how everything is to be managed when they’re no longer around? As a matter of act, I’ve done precisely that myself now. It took me a whole day to list all my digital identities. No doubt I forgot a few: come to think of it, what about those Myspace pages I had long before Facebook? It all piles up over time.

“Known memberships are no problem,” says Eiler. When retaining his services, you draw up a list of the deceased’s account information and Eiler does the rest. I could have saved myself hours – what am I saying, days! – of aggravation and cursing out loud. And not only that: Eiler’s software enquires with hundreds of portals and service-providers to find out if there are any memberships no one knows about. After logging in on his website, the client can see how the search is going and decide which accounts to delete and which to transfer to someone else’s name.

On the other hand, secrets occasionally pop up in the process: The husband registered on a dating site. The friend who used to gamble at an online casino. The child who possessed bitcoins, the digital currency preferred for online games, but also for illicit business on the dark net, where drugs and weapons are bought and sold. Do you really want to know everything? Going through insurance files is one thing, rummaging through the accumulated jumble of a person’s inner life is another. Back in the pre-Internet age, you might have found a diary, one of those little books with a lock on it. Would you have picked the lock and taken a peek inside? In settling my father’s estate, my siblings are clearing out his tangible life. They find letters from his adolescence, old Super 8 home movies and the year book of his graduation class. His personal records, which end with our parents’ wedding video, date from before our time. We read them like a stranger’s multimedia autobiography.

But the documents on the computer are different. They tell of the life we led, of the one who raised us.  I loved that person, and I don’t want that to change.

We are still missing some information: online access to his bank accounts, customer IDs for telephone and electricity. I click my way through folders, trying to figure out the underlying organizing principle, wondering whether there ever was one or whether all these files aren’t just a big heap of trash, a ragbag, like this one drawer you have in every house where you put all the stuff you don’t know where else to put: sparklers, plasters, pens, lighters, marbles.

Who routinely cleans up their computer? Or better yet: clears it out – and throws out all the trash? Instead we just buy new, bigger hard disks and proceed to fill them up too. My father had three hard disks, a dozen memory sticks, two mobile phones. I find old invoices, letters of complaint about late flights, a handful of photos. One of them shows my sister and me sitting on our father’s lap, we must have been four or five years old. He must have scanned the picture, which dates from the days of analog photography and used to be propped up on his bed stand, roughly the same distance from him as, later on, his computer. When I come across that old photo, I can’t help blubbing, I close the computer and give up.

There are experts called “computer forensics analysts”. They dissect hard disks, looking for traces and clues. They often work for the police or for banks. They ransack computers to figure out who stole passwords or how it was possible for someone to suddenly withdraw millions from someone else’s account. And some of these experts work for undertakers. Armin Fimberger of the firm Digitales Erbe (“Digital Legacy”) is one such expert: he’s a certified data security engineer and IT forensics expert. If you bring him a computer, he’ll remove the hard disk and sift out and organize the data. After analysing the machine he gives the customer a list: 5673 pictures found, 34 videos, 234 music files, such and such software, 3 computer game avatars, 17 accounts here and there, so and so many bitcoins. “We can also say whether there must have been another hard disk or whether there’s a backup on a cloud,” explains Fimberger. The customer decides which information to keep, whether to cash in leftover bitcoins or sell the deceased’s domains on the domain exchange. “Everyone wants two things,” says Fimberger: “to clean up the pictures and the internet.” Nobody wants to come across the vestiges of a dead person online. “At present, only ten to twelve per cent of deceased over 65 years old have a digital legacy that needs to be settled,” he says, but that figure is bound to increase markedly from 2025.

My father is among those ten to twelve per cent, and I didn’t know Fimberger then. So in desperation I called one of my crazy, nerdy friends, who spent a night ransacking the computer. In the morning, various folders lay neatly stacked on the desk: “Banks”, “House”, “Insurance”. We adopted the electricity contract and re-registered the cars in our names. We printed out the previous year’s bank statements and cancelled memberships in a tennis club and Aktion Mensch, a German lottery-funded social charity.

We monitored his inbox for three months, wrote to a handful of people we didn’t know, then deleted his e-mail account. Within six months my father had disappeared from the digital world. Or almost. After all, you wouldn’t take down every single picture of a person in your house after their death. On the contrary, you might even hang up a few more so as not to forget them. My digital mementos of my father are the photos others took of him that are still up on Facebook. His MP3 playlist, which still starts playing in his car whenever I turn on the engine. The picture of him with his son on his lap that appears when I turn on his GPS. He is laughing and happy in that picture. And that’s just the way I want to remember him.