Taking passwords to the grave

Key phrase: “I advise clients to put all their passwords to things online in an estate planning document”; that scares the willies out of me, I wouldn’t recommend it. The intent is sound, but I would advise people to put the passwords in a encrypted file under their control, and log the password for that in escrow, elsewhere.

Otherwise the inertia against changing (say) your e-mail password, will be too great. I suspect even what I recommend above is too complex for average joes.

I also love the last two paragraphs, which run:

Although his password remains a mystery, Talcott, who worked as a mainframe programmer when he wasn’t traveling around Europe, acknowledged the importance of data retention for posterity in a poem titled “Eating Salad With My Fingers:”

“Our office romance is over because I am no longer employed,” Talcott wrote. “Where is our offsite backup tape?”

Article follows. An AdrianaLink.


Taking passwords to the grave

William Talcott, a prominent San Francisco poet with dual Irish citizenship, had fans all over the world. But when he died in June of bone marrow cancer, his daughter couldn’t notify most of his contacts because his e-mail account–and the online address book he used–was locked up.

Talcott, 69, a friend of beatnik Neil Cassidy, apparently took his password to the grave.

It’s a vexing, and increasingly common problem for families mourning the loss of loved ones. As more and more people move their lives, address books, calendars, financial information, online, they are taking a risk that some information formerly filed away in folders and desks might never be recovered. That is, unless they share their passwords, which poses security threats.

“He did not keep a hard copy address book. I think everything was online,” said Talcott’s daughter, Julie Talcott-Fuller. “There were people he knew that I haven’t been able to contact. It’s been very hard.”

“Yahoo (his e-mail provider) said it wouldn’t give out the information due to privacy laws, but my dad is dead so I don’t understand that,” she said.

But it’s not a question of privacy rights so much as property rights, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

“The so-called ‘Tort of Privacy’ expires upon death, but property interests don’t,” he said. “Private e-mails are a new category. It’s not immediately clear how to treat them, but it’s a form of digital property.”

Attorneys advising clients on estate planning should ask them to determine who they want to have access to their computers when they die, Rotenberg said.

That’s exactly what San Francisco-based estate planning attorney Michael Blacksburg does. “I advise clients to put all their passwords to things online in an estate planning document,” he said.


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