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CHIPS Articles: Digital Life After Death: Planning and Managing Digital Legacies for Service Members

Digital Life After Death: Planning and Managing Digital Legacies for Service Members
By U.S. Navy Lt. John Paramadilok - January-March 2021
DISCLAIMER. The author is not a financial planner or advisor and contents or materials in this article are not intended to provide financial planning and advice, estate planning, legal advice, or retirement decisions. Readers are recommended to consult the appropriate certified professional or licensed advisor prior to making changes that impact legal or financial decisions.

Service members, active and reserve, are required to review their personnel records and verify their accuracy, typically on an annual basis, based on the Navy Military Personnel Manual (MILPERSMAN). Most of the records relate to administrative functions of military life, such as pay, home of record, next of kin and dependency data, Servicemembers’ Group Life Insurance (SGLI), and others. Additionally, legal documents are reviewed prior to deployments – wills, trusts, Power of Attorney, and more. Collectively, this planning contributes to unit and family readiness. However, what are we doing as individuals to protect our personal digital footprint and assets?

Our lives and daily activities are intertwined across numerous digital platforms and mediums. Digital connections dominate almost every aspect of our lives from health; banking and finance; social media; communications; entertainment; education; dining and travel; professional services; buying groceries; maintaining home temperature — you get the point. All of this access to digital content requires account management to obtain and manage services through different companies, providers, and organizations. Managing these various accounts can be overwhelming as we are likely to have more than 50 passwords at any one time. To the point, do you know how many accounts and logins you manage?

This article challenges you to consider the impacts to you and your family’s readiness when it comes to your digital footprint. Which accounts should your loved ones have access to while you are deployed, should you become incapacitated, or in the event of death? How difficult would it be to your family or trusted friend to navigate through basics such as your home wireless network or personal photos stored on locally encrypted or cloud accounts?

Readiness planning should consider the realities and possibilities of the inherent dangers of military service, especially when forward deployed in combat operations. However, our mortality isn’t limited to exposure to combat and protection of our accounts and personal information should always be a priority simply because life is unpredictable.

Understanding Your Digital Footprint

The public’s expectation to privacy has increased with the proliferation of digital media and content. Improvements to information security technologies leverage multifactor authentication (MFA), including Short Messaging Service (SMS) texts that require six to eight-digit codes to log in to online accounts. The combination of improved privacy laws and MFA increases the complexities for hackers to gain access to your digital information and, based on the service provider’s Terms Of Use (TOU) and local laws, may also make it increasingly difficult, if not impossible, for your loved ones to access your accounts in an emergency.

The first step to understanding your personal digital footprint is in creating a list of digital accounts and media you use on a regular basis and organize them in a manner that is simple and understandable to those you want (or don’t want), to have access. This information may be outlined in your will so that your wishes are clearly understood.

The table below lists common digital accounts to consider in planning. It should be noted that your accounts could be hacked and your identity stolen in the event of your death, most likely to claim government benefits, obtain a loan, or commit other fraudulent acts. Protecting your personally identifiable information (PII) is important to ensure the safety of your assets for the benefit of your heirs as well as the integrity of your accounts for your own financial well-being.

As you review your account information, take the opportunity to review the TOU’s and Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ’s) pertaining to account recovery and how to prepare your digital accounts for an extended absence. There are features within applications that provide specific services for the deceased, such as for Google and Facebook, as well as instructions for legacy contacts. Consider if you want to provide access information for your loved ones to take full control of your account or memorialize it by having limited access to manage basic features. You should also map any additional dependencies that are created for access through an application, such as SSO features, to log into other external applications.

Communicate and Exercise Your Test Plan

Once you have reviewed and listed your digital footprint and accounts, begin to prioritize and communicate what’s important to your loved ones. There may be solutions already in place that don’t require as much effort, such as joint bank accounts, shared cloud services, and management account privileges through cellular service providers, compared to privacy-sensitive items like cell phones and personal email accounts. Any information or direct access you share should only be with someone you trust. You can also consider leveraging a trusted entity through legal means.

Another good starting point is to review your budget to determine what is being paid through AutoPay and BillPay services to fund basic necessities, such as rent, mortgage, car, utilities, and cellular services. Don’t forget to also identify digital documents and programs that are needed to leverage survivor’s benefits, such as the Montgomery GI Bill (MGIB) and scholarships for your children, pensions, Veteran Affairs programs, and other federal and state benefits that may be carried over.

Consult a Certified Financial Planner (CFP) and legal advisor to understand your available options, document any decisions, and ensure all trusted parties are aware of the location and accessibility of any supplemental digital documents. The VA offers free professional financial counseling through FinancialPoint®. Additional information is available through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs website at http://www.benefits.va.gov/insurance/bfcs.asp.

I can’t emphasize enough: Never share passwords for government-issued systems, devices, or accounts; and exercise caution when determining how and with whom to share passwords to personal accounts.

My final recommendation is to test your plan. Run through an annual exercise in testing access, reviewing accounts requiring MFA and SSO, and ensuring the highest digital priorities are accessible without any assistance. Identify issues and improve your plan because passwords, accounts, and trends will change over time.

Being prepared and communicating your desire for accessing and managing your digital assets have never been more crucial in today’s increasingly interconnected world and uncertain times.

Sample List of Personal Digital Footprints

Online Access - Financial Accounts and Obligations – Institution, Website Address, Phone and Account Numbers

  • Accountant and Financial Professionals (Certified Professional Accountant (CPA), Certified Financial Planner (CFP), Legal Firms and Attorney Relationships or Legal Services)
  • Credit Cards (Charge, Secured, Store, Student, Unsecured) Crypto Exchanges (Binance, Coinbase, Gemini, Kraken)
  • Debit Cards (Checking, Flexible Savings Accounts (FSA), Health Savings Accounts (HSA))
  • Insurance (Auto, Property, Life, Disability, Health, Umbrella)
  • Investment and Brokerage Accounts
  • Leases (Apartment, Rentals, Vehicle)
  • Loans (Personal, Student, Vehicle)
  • Mortgages (Equity Lines, Primary Home, Rental Properties)
  • Savings and Checking Accounts
  • Location of Tax Returns and Service
  • Utility Bills (Cell Phone, Cable/Internet, Electricity, Gas, Trash/Recycling, Water/Sewer)

Cloud Accounts – Account, Website Address, Linked Services (MFA, SMS, Tokens) and Email Services*

  • Education (College or University *.edu and alumni accounts)
  • Free (AOL, Google/Gmail, Apple/iCloud Mail, Outlook, Yahoo)
  • Organization or Institution
  • Subscription (MailChimp, ProtonMail, RackSpace, Zoho)
  • Storage Services (Box, Dropbox, Google Drive, Google Photos, iCloud, O365)

Social Media Accounts* – Account, Website Address

  • Personal (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter)
  • Professional (LinkedIn, TogetherWeServed)
  • Subscription Accounts – Entertainment & Streaming (Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Google Music, iTunes, Hulu, Netflix, Pandora, Sling, YouTubeTV) /
  • Software Licenses

Membership Accounts – Organization, Account, Website Address, Member Number, Chapter Contact Info

  • American Legion
  • American Veterans (AMVETS)
  • Association of the United States Navy (AUSN)
  • Disabled American Veterans (DAV)
  • Marine Corps Association (MCA)
  • Marine Corps League (MCL)
  • Military Officers Association of America (MOAA)
  • Navy League
  • Non Commissioned Officers Association
  • Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW)

Rewards Accounts – Company, Account, Website Address

  • Airline Frequent Flyer Miles
  • Hotel Points
  • Rental Car points
  • Co-Operatives (Housing, Retail, Social)

Home Network and Systems – Physical Location, Account, Website Address

  • Backup Devices, Files, and Locations (digital copies of wills, DD-214’s, property titles, contracts, photos)
  • Computer login, PIN, and Biometric Authentication
  • Encrypted USB Drives, External Hard Drives, and Network Drives
  • Network Router and WiFi
  • Smart Home Devices (Appliances, Light Switches, Locks, Security Systems, Thermostats)

Password Management*

  • Browser Master Passwords (Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari)
  • Password Managers (1Password, Dashlane, KeyChain, KeePass, Keeper, LastPass)
  • Recovery Keys and Key Files
  • Tokens (Authenticator Apps – Authy, Duo Mobile, Google Authenticator, Microsoft Authenticator; Hardware Tokens – RSA, Titan, YubiKey)

Mobile and Portable Devices*

  • Cell Phones (Biometrics, PIN, Passwords)
  • Portable Hard Drives and USB Devices
  • Tablets

* These items may be necessary for account and password recovery. I recommend that you not cancel or disconnect services to improve the likelihood of being able to reset passwords or leverage MFA and Single Sign On (SSO) services.

This list only applies to personal accounts as you should never share passwords or access to official or government issued equipment, systems, devices, and accounts.

Lt. John Paramadilok is a Naval Cryptologic Warfare Officer with over 22 years in the Department of Defense across various roles as a civil servant, government contractor, and military service member in the areas of network engineering and operations, information security, workforce development, intelligence, Electronic Warfare, and Computer Network Operations. He has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Illinois in Computer Science; a Master of Science degree from Johns Hopkins University in Information Systems Engineering; an MBA from Seattle University; and is a graduate of the Naval War College.

Concepts and ideas for this article are based on the book titled, ‘Managing Digital Legacies’ by Andrew Kalat (O’Reilly Media, 2017, ISBN 978-1-491-95777-6), with written permission from the author.

Applications, companies, organizations, services, and software listed are provided as examples to related topics and is not intended to promote, endorse, or validate any of the products.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of the Navy, Department of Defense or the United States Government.

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