Your passwords are your gateway to your digital assets
It’s a tough balancing act when it comes to sharing your application and account passwords. Careful storage of your password inventory is critical. Your passwords are the gateway to your digital assets, and it’s dangerous to allow that information to fall into the wrong hands. You don’t want to ignore security, or to violate the law. You need to make sure that whoever needs your information will have it when necessary. And a password manager is the safest, smartest way, to insure a smooth digital asset handoff. Dashlane and LastPass, recommended in prior blog posts, are the services I recommend most often to friends, family, and clients.
Keeping your password information close, tight, and secret, doesn’t work when someone else needs to deal with your online existence.
If you don’t plan properly, you are going to leave an enormous mess. However, if you plan ahead by using a password manager, all of your your username and password information will be up to date.
The ubiquity of online accounts and applications
If you still aren’t convinced that sharing your passwords makes sense, just stop for a minute to think about how much you do on a daily basis online: email, snapchat, facebook, banking, credit cards, blogging, books, twitter, photos, videos, music, news, notes, video chats, messaging, reminders, calendars, school, work, movies, tv, gaming, shopping, networking, health, websites, hotel & travel rewards, online storage, important documents, paying bills, reading, writing, communicating, business, personal, etc.
Think about the prevalence of online bill payments, banking, and investing. Lack of access to that information can cause serious problems for your survivors. Imagine your spouse or your children trying to manage your accounts without the benefit of your account information. Bills may go unpaid. Investments might get ignored. Automatic payments may continue indefinitiely. Good until cancelled orders may keep executing. Heirs can’t get to photographs, medical records, or important legal documents.
Rules covering third-party and fiduciary access are either inconsistent or non-existent
But there’s a 10,000 pound elephant in the room.
Possesing all of your online account information doesn’t necessarily mean that your survivors can legally access those accounts. Every State has laws criminalizing unauthorized computer access. Only a few States address the issue of fiduciary access to computers or online accounts. Federal law prohibits unauthorized access to computers via the Federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the Stored Communications Act of 1986. To further complicate matters, case-law on the subject is somewhat limited.
Know your Terms of Service
The Terms of Service that apply to every one of your online accounts are all very different. Most, if not all, will prohibit sharing your username or password. Many will delete your data after a period of inactivity or your death. Some may leave your information visible despite the fact that you are no longer among the living.
Evernote encourages you to use a “distinct and non-obvious password that is different from passwords you use for any other service”. And although they “strongly urge you not to share your account information with anyone”, they are somewhat in unique in addressing what happens when you die. The people at Evernote “…encourage you to include your Account Information, with instructions on how to access your Content, in your will or other estate plans, so that anyone you wish to have access to your account will have the means to do so.” Good advice from Evernote.
Even though a password manager may solve the problem of how to transfer an up to date account list to the right person, use of that information may still be deemed a State and Federal crime. It’s critical to know your Terms of Service, and how it will interact with your desire and need to share the information that you want to pass along.
6 steps for a smooth transition
If you’ve finally decided to share your account and password information, here’s what you can do for a smooth handoff:
- Identify your digital assets.
- Create an inventory of every physical device, account, and online service that you use. Make sure to include computers, tablets, phones, USB drives, external drives, cameras, etc. Don’t forget to include important documents and data, and what devices and/or services you use for storing them. Include all usernames, passwords, and the answers to all of those pesky security questions. Use a password manager like Dashlane to warehouse all of that information and keep it up to date.
- In the event of your incapacity or death, decide what you want done with those devices, assets, accounts, data and documents. Decide who will have the necessary access – see # 6 below.
- On an ongoing basis, back up and secure everything you listed in item #1.
- Read and review the Terms of Service for everything you listed in item #1. It’s critical to know if someone else can or can’t access your devices or accounts. If your Terms of Service prevent a 3rd party from accessing your digital assets, use an alternative backup.
- Speak to an attorney who can help you navigate through the applicable State and Federal laws, and your Terms of Service. An attorney can also help you select a Digital Executor, or someone who can fill that role as part of an estate plan.
Some practical applications…
If you’ve decided to keep everything in a spreadsheet, you should password protect the spreadsheet. You should list all three storage locations – spreadsheet, cloud service, and computer, in your inventory.
If you’ve placed all of that information in a paper document, lock it away securely. However, every time you change any of your information you will have to update the physical document. This is a chore that is handled automatically if you use a password manager like Dashlane. If you are going to use a paper list, consider leaving your list with an attorney, storing it online, or storing it in locked cabinet or safe. Your bank will probably “freeze” your safe deposit when you die, so it’s not the ideal storage location. Neither is your Will, which can become a matter of public record, and is not compatible with the frequent updates required of good password management.
Make things easy for your family
Your goal in providing your account and password information is to make it easy for your surviving family members to manage your online accounts, prevent identity theft and fraud, maintain privacy, secure sentimental and valuable assets and documents, and to prevent losses to your estate. It’s not to permit a freedom of information windfall to your friends and family. Once you know what you want to provide access to and to whom, and how they can access your information, you can plan properly for a smooth transition.