FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Who Will Inherit Your Digital Assets?

If, God forbid, something were to happen to you tomorrow, who would inherit your e-mail? Your blog? Your website? Your laptop that's protected by a password? Would you want anybody to have access to these, or would you want your digital assets to effectively die with you?

Ethical questions such as these are being asked more and more as digital media becomes more secure, and a greater part of our lives. The issue of accessing e-mail of the deceased recently gained national attention when the parents of a Marine reservist killed in Iraq sued his ISP to gain access to his e-mail account. The parents claim that they are entitled to their son's e-mail just as they would be his personal papers and other material assets. The ISP, though, claims that by releasing the information to the parents, it would be violating its own privacy policy.

Instructions for accessing digital assets will surely become a standard part of wills and advance directives, perhaps using a set of public/private keys to ensure anthenticity of access. ISPs and online service providers could also create special protocols for allowing certain individuals "back door" access to accounts as well. But even this is risky. How would an ISP know whether it is receiving a legitimate request? Will they need to see a copy of a death certificate? Would the heirs need to obtain a court order?

There are no easy answers, and this dilemma illustrates just one more way how technology is charging ahead of our ethical and legal framework. As the information in our lives increasingly goes digital, addressing the challenge fairly will become ever more important.