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Time to plan our online estates

Given that Facebook has more than 1 billion users, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a few million of them are dead by now. What happens to their postings and photos?

Karen BLEIER /AFP/Getty Images

Given that Facebook has more than 1 billion users, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a few million of them are dead by now. What happens to their postings and photos?

We’re doomed. Seriously. One of these days it’ll be all over for us. But not for our photos, Facebook postings, e-mails, and music files. Barring a global nuclear inferno, the stuff we store online will be around long after we’re dead. It’s good news for friends and loved ones who want something to remember us by. Except they may not be able to get at it, unless you make the right moves now.

Given that Facebook has more than 1 billion users, it’s not unreasonable to assume that a few million of them are dead by now. What happens to their postings and photos? And the files they’ve stored at Google, and Yahoo, and iCloud, and Instagram, and countless other cloud-based services? Hardly any of us think about it, but now that we live our lives online, we better start.

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When my father passed away, he left behind faded Polaroid photos and 78-rpm recordings of blues singer Muddy Waters. When I check out, the kids will find JPEG images of Chicago and MP3 recordings of Sonny Boy Williamson and Astor Piazzolla. Unlike my dad’s legacy, much of mine resides not on a dusty shelf at home, but on dozens of whirring hard drives at data centers scattered around the world.

How will my kin find it all, and what will become of it? That depends.

Unless someone tells Facebook, it doesn’t know you’re dead, and your page will continue to exist. The company will delete that page altogether at the request of your loved ones. Or your relatives can turn the page into an online memorial, so friends and other visitors can continue to see the old photos and message posts — and even add new comments.

Yahoo and Instagram take a hard-core approach. If your relatives provide proof of your death, these companies will delete all your files. But as for the material itself, your family may not be able to get into those stored files, because neither company will provide your relatives with a password.

Twitter is a little more gentle. The company will delete a dead user’s files but next of kin can request a copy of all the person’s public tweets.

Google is perhaps the most humane. Last year, the Internet giant added a feature to let you pass on your files if you pass on. When you don’t log onto Google for, say, six months, the company will contact up to 10 people of your choice and grant them access to your files. You can be selective about it, letting the kids view your photos, for instance, but blocking their access to old e-mails. Or you can program it to delete your entire Google history after a preset period of time, and take your secrets to the grave.

It’s a sound approach that other companies should emulate. But with so many cloud services on tap — Dropbox, SkyDrive, Cubby, Shutterfly, and dozens more — you’ll still have to check out the policies at each one to be sure that your data won’t be buried alongside you.

Some advice: Start taking a cloud inventory. List every online service where you’ve got files stashed away. Collect the various usernames and passwords, and share this information with a trusted friend or family member. Give this person written permission to access your accounts and instructions about how to dispose of your online legacy.

Even so, you may run afoul of the law. Some online services, such as Yahoo, forbid the transfer of usernames and passwords, even to next of kin. So if a friend logs in after you’ve died, he’s technically engaged in illegal hacking.

At least seven states, including Connecticut and Rhode Island, have passed laws that allow your designated representative to access your online accounts; a group called the Uniform Law Commission is drafting model legislation for all 50 states. But for now, Massachusetts residents must take their chances.

There’s another worry: Who can you trust with your passwords? A company called PasswordBox offers a shrewd solution. PasswordBox is an online vault where you can store login data for all your accounts; the only password you have to remember is the one that unlocks the vault. I’ve long used a similar service called LastPass.

PasswordBox has an extra feature called Legacy Locker, which lets you designate a “password heir.” This person has no access to your passwords until you die. Then he or she contacts PasswordBox, provides proof of your passing, and is granted access. A basic PasswordBox account is free and lets you store up to 25 passwords; the unlimited version costs $11.99 per year.

Instead of shutting down your Facebook or Twitter accounts, British online service DeadSocial allows you keep sending messages from beyond the grave.

Instead of shutting down your Facebook or Twitter accounts, British online service DeadSocial allows you keep sending messages from beyond the grave.

Your electronic executor can also help you haunt the people you left behind, with help from an odd British online service called DeadSocial. Instead of shutting down your Facebook or Twitter accounts, DeadSocial lets you keep chattering from beyond the grave.

Suppose you don’t expect to make it through the year. At DeadSocial, you can create a Christmas greeting now, and set it to run on your Facebook or Twitter account next Dec. 25. In fact, you can schedule messages for any day, and for many years to come. After signing up for the free service, you pick a friend to act as your executor. He or she notifies DeadSocial of your passing, and your automated messages start to appear — as few or as many as you’ve left behind.

I’ve signed up for DeadSocial, and I’ve chosen my first message from the other side: “It’s just a matter of time for you guys, too. Better get your digital affairs in order.”

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.

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