Digital Lifestyle: a post-mortem web presence

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 November, 2012, 1:26pm

There are few thoughts creepier than receiving messages from beyond the grave. In older times, when people passed away, relatives and friends would give them loving send-offs and get on with their lives. Memories of the deceased would be limited to photo albums and keepsakes.

Today, however, with the internet and the plethora of social media sites brimming with pictures, postings and videos of everybody, your virtual presence is likely to haunt the living long after you cease to exist in the flesh.

Your birthday will continue to pop up on the wall of your Facebook friends, who will regularly receive reminders to reconnect with you. Compromising photos and videos of your carousing will remain on the web ad infinitum. It's enough to make anyone turn in their grave.

Sensing the business opportunity in helping people manage their post-mortem digital presence, local law graduate Ryanne Lai Hiu-yeung established an internet start-up - aptly named Perpetu - with Italian programmer Andrea Livotto.

Currently in its trial phase and due to launch this month, it offers a series of services to ensure you keep your dignity intact and all your digital assets properly managed after you're gone.

For a yet-undetermined fee, you'll be able to arrange for farewell messages to be sent by Twitter, for all your e-mails to be deleted or sent to an authorised person, for your Facebook account to be deleted and other services.

Lai says Perpetu can help you control your digital afterlife from beyond the grave. She got the idea after reading a news story about a mother of a deceased US soldier going to court and gaining access to his Yahoo e-mail account in 2005.

"If I die, I don't want my parents to see all my e-mails," she says.

As always, the devil is lurking in the details here, and the realms of small print so often ignored when people sign up for any account cede control over all the digital data to the site operator.

"Facebook turns dead users' profiles into memorial accounts which no one, even the one you have authorised before, can alter," says Lai. "Even if I gave my password to my mother before I died in the hope that she would help me manage it, she wouldn't be able to access it. My profile will stay there forever, and people can post spam messages on my wall."

Charlene Chian, head of communications (Asia-Pacific) for Facebook, says the profile and wall are left up so that loved ones can make posts in remembrance.

"We will provide the estate of the deceased with a download of the account's data if prior consent is obtained from the deceased or mandated by law," she says.

In September, Facebook hit one billion users, and the social networking generation is ageing. Website monitor Pingdom reported the average age of Facebook users to be 40.5 years old this year, compared with 38.5 years old in 2010. So it's no surprise that more entrepreneurs are offering "digital afterlife" management services.

Israeli start-up Willook has signed up more than 200,000 users from 42 countries for its "if I die" Facebook app that enables users to create a video or a text message that will be published only after they die.

Legacy Locker, based in San Francisco, works like a digital safe deposit box in which users can store all passwords to accounts carrying their digital assets, although Lai says this is subject to the licence legalities of each firm.

Similar start-ups include SecureSafe, which this year acquired Entrustet (started by tech blogger Nathan Lustig), and AssetLock.

But the business is not without its risks. Swedish start-up My Webwill, offering similar services, met an untimely death itself in November last year.

Despite the inauspicious nature of the business in a Chinese city, Lai and Livotto are undaunted. The pair, who met in Start-up Weekend Hong Kong last year (where aspiring tech entrepreneurs hobnob and form teams to bring their ideas to fruition) went to meet funeral parlour operators, insurance people, lawyers and will writers as part of their research.

They received a government grant of HK$100,000 from the Cyberport Creative Micro Fund in February.

"Will writers and lawyers have an interest in our service? Lawyers told us they were often speechless when clients asked them what they could do with their digital assets. Our service, which can be sold as an add-on to their will-writing service, can help to fill that gap," says Livotto.

Lai says they will serve as a gatekeeper to make sure no digital assets are mishandled due to pranks or false death alarms.

"We will give you a code to give to the people you trust. When we receive the code from any of the trusted people, we will send an e-mail to you. We will initiate proceedings only if no response is heard from you within a month or two. If we are still suspicious, we will ask for proof, such as death certificates."

A self-professed tech geek, Livotto says he's also saved all the codes for Perpetu safely on a website. "GeekHub, a very popular website for programmers, is a depository for the codes. If I drop dead suddenly, I don't want my labour of love to disappear."

As befitting two entrepreneurs who want to keep all their posthumous affairs shipshape, they will soon add an option that will even prepare for the demise of the internet giants themselves.

"We will regularly keep copies of all your data from Facebook," Lai says. "We want to prepare for Facebook's death as well."