Your Digital Legacy: Genealogical, Social Media and Legacy Technology

Your Digital Legacy

Photograph of a stack of blank CDs for digital storage, accompanying the historytracings blog post “Your Digital Legacy: Genealogical, Social Media and Legacy Technology” from historytrace. Image copyright: www.freeimages.com / Enzo Forciniti.Most of us with an interest in family history and sharing family life online are familiar with two digital phenomena. Firstly the popular use of online genealogical platforms to create, present and store our personal legacy of family history records, images, documents and now DNA data. And secondly the use of social media platforms to record the events of our lives and those of others in real-time as we live them, through sharing photographs, updates and moments. Alongside what we physically bequeath to our successors these two areas constitute a sizeable repository of what some might deem the most significant and individually meaningful portion of their legacy in digital form.

Added to this is a third sector: the expanding legacy technology industry. This sector includes relatively new offerings and platforms which are a hybrid between genealogical, social media and artificial intelligence (AI), which can help us collate and share moments of our lives and those of others, both present and past, as memories. But also includes platforms and tools which can help users manage their digital legacy, creating an after-life for their in-life digital presence and even instigate your own virtual, digital AI after-life after death.

When we manage our personal data protection and identity security we carefully consider and monitor our sharing of personal data online and offline. We think privacy, we think security, but do we think legacy?

Genealogical, social media and legacy technologies constitute a wide range of platforms online and offline, from software products, apps and services, to free and paid subscription memberships. Wherever we upload, share and store personal and private data, or curate meaningful collections of content and media, this user-curated digital content forms an enormous digital personal data legacy which needs to be carefully managed. Not just to optimise our everyday usage, to reflect our security and privacy preferences, but also to establish our own wishes for that content in the event of our death, and the wishes of our loved ones and heirs. Careful legacy management also mitigates against claims to personal and copyrighted material and intellectual property for the benefit of our estate and beneficiaries.

Genealogical platforms and digital legacy

First off let’s look at some of the big name genealogical platforms. You may use one particular company to research your family history and store your findings or you may spread your research and outcomes across more than one. It is not our intention here to supply a definitive list of what each company’s policy is regarding access to users’ digital legacies following death. However we hope that looking at this topic will raise awareness among the genealogical community about the need to plan and manage the safeguarding of your genealogical digital data after death.

It is really worth taking some time to consider where our family history data is stored, both physically and online. Making sure that we have checked where necessary that we are familiar and happy with each companies’ policies and procedures in order that our data will remain accessible for those to whom it is meaningful after our death. This may be close family, distant relatives with whom we have connected genealogically or genetically online, or with strangers who have yet to find a connection to our family past.


The key issue here is accessibility. Will your public data remain accessible publicly following your death? Have you made contingencies to hand on hard or soft copies to others so that all your eggs are not stored in the external basket so to speak. What about your private genealogical data? Do you need to make arrangements for your genealogical data to be distributed to others before your death so that others can share it beyond your life for future generations? We are not just talking about digital copies of data such as individual documents or historic photographs, but also including here content such as the meaningful connections which have been created though your research and collation of information to create family networks, relationships and trees, and family stories for example.

As with so many of the areas of our lives which we safeguard by password protection, if you wish others to have access in the event that you are incapacitated or no longer living, then this is something you will need to plan for and have a policy in place preemptively. Whilst it is strongly recommended not to share passwords and access data with others, some genealogical and social media companies rely on a family member of the deceased having information about an account and being able to access it or at least having access to the email which has been used to set up the account in the first place, again requiring individuals to share access and password information prior to death.

It is worth thinking about actioning this in advance or including such contingencies in end of life arrangements in your will or a witnessed letter of intention.

The policy and procedures for deceased user data of each online genealogical platform is not always included in the wording of the license which you signed up to in your user agreement. This agreement usually addressed user copyright and intellectual property rights but you may have to contact a company directly to get further specific information about digital legacy management. In general where user accounts are not deleted after paid subscription elapses, one might imagine that user submitted data might remain publicly available, perhaps until a company decides to delete an account or changes its policy on inactive accounts. Of course if you do not have access to the email account which would receive such a notification, data might disappear from view without warning. There is a case here for making sure that you have made a copy where private use is allowed of data supplied by other users which is meaningful to you, or, if you are satisfied with the veracity of that family information, you could incorporate it into your data with a reference to its provenance and any copyrights.

In the case of genealogical content which has been posted online but withheld as private by a deceased user, where access is by request and consent, such cases would require someone to have access to the account in order to manage any future wider access. In such cases it is important that if genealogical information meaningful to a family group but only one family member manages the account, that more than one person in the family group has access or posts the same information. Many of us will have experienced requesting access a private family information found online, only to hear nothing back at all and not to have any other obvious users to appeal to who might have a duplicate of the information being sought.

Genealogical platform policies

Ancestry for example states that an account will always stay open as a free registered guest account with access to associated family trees even if there is no current subscription. If a deceased person’s log in details are known then it is possible to continue to log in to gain access. If you wish to take over an account completely, then the executor of a deceased individual’s will can send an email request to transfer account ownership.

Family Search retains data and family trees submitted by users according to the settings and user license. Data in what they call the “private space” can be viewed and managed only by the assigned user of that private space. Other family users who have a copy of their own “regulated data” should never find that they cannot create or see a relationship in their own ancestral tree. What is public remains public and what is private is managed by robust mechanisms which control access to regulated data. If a person or relationship record is marked as sensitive by a family tree administrator this information remains in the private space. A sensitive record of a deceased person can only be viewed by the user of the private space that the deceased person is assigned to.

In the case of Find My Past if a user dies they suggest that it would be necessary to know the email address which was registered to the account in order for a family member to gain access to the deceased’s account. If that family member can adequately answer a number of questions to prove their connection then the email address and password could be reset to access to the account but such events are dealt with on a case by case basis.

Geni has both public and private settings, as with most of the other big name companies if data has been posted as public then it will remain there even if the paid membership lapses to the basic free membership. FOLD3 states that no data is taken down following a user’s death, one example being information submitted to Memorial Pages which are public access and remain as such.

As one might hope for a company which deals with living genetic and genealogical family connections, 23andMe has a robust and transparent policy regarding the data provided through their service, which is considered confidential and the property of the account holder. They ensure that data is released to the appropriate person in the event of a users’ passing but again this relies on a family member having access to the email address and password associated with the deceased’s 23andMe account, through which they will need to contact 23andMe to discuss access to the account. Where a family member does not have access to that email or 23andMe account details, they state that they can only release genetic information to an Executor, Personal Representative or Beneficiary of an estate upon receipt and review of specific information and authorisation forms.

Digital legacy on social media, online digital streaming and sharing platforms

We don’t always think of it as such, living in the here and now as we do on social media, but social media platforms, digital streaming and sharing services are perhaps the most widely used legacy building platforms currently in use at present. Their user base far outweighs the proportion of users regularly sharing data on genealogical websites. Whereas the genealogical platforms store a proportionately larger amount of data regarding the genealogical lives of past and deceased generations, whilst also providing access to officially generated vital documentation about living individuals, it is social media and content sharing platforms where our own everyday lives become the past at the click of a button on a daily basis. The list of the social media and sharing platforms you use regularly may include Facebook, Linkedin, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, Google and Apple platforms, Flickr, Snapchat and the list goes on (many many other products and services are also available). Anywhere where you have created, curated and stored content is a repository of your personal digital legacy, and as such a part of your personal inheritance to others.

Again here, to a certain extent the big players lead the way in setting out the policies and procedures for managing access to the data of deceased users. It is important to think about the content you have created in your social and digital accounts across the internet and to be aware of each platforms’ regulations and settings so that you can manage access to your digital legacy after your death, according to your wishes and those of your family.

The social enterprise DeadSocial has created a valuable set of free resources to help us navigate planning and managing our digital legacy across social media, through a series of in-depth tutorials to help with issues from access considerations to downloading data, with DeadSocial Guides to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, Google+, and Websites & Blogs. DeadSocial is unique in the UK, providing a focused source of advice and tutorials around digital legacy planning and management as an invaluable first port of call in matters digital legacy. Last August BBC Click reported on DeadSocial’s digital legacy tool Legacy Builder, however since then founder James Norris’ through his work at DeadSocial has developed a significant national advisory service which has been validated through its role in the foundation of the Digital Legacy Association in January 2016. This association delivers CPD training and advice to health and social care professionals nationally to empower employees and employers in these two sectors to discuss and advise clients in their care on digital legacy planning and management matters. We’ll return to DeadSocial’s Legacy Builder digital legacy tool further on.

Each social media platform has its own features and policies around digital legacy and user accounts following death. Just looking at Facebook for example, there is the facility to memorialize Facebook accounts following a user’s death. Users can set a legacy contact in their account profile and choose in advance whether to have an account memorialized or permanently deleted from Facebook following death. Memorialized accounts are a place for family and friends to share memories about the deceased person, where content created by the user during their lifetime, their posts and photographs, stay visible to the audience it was shared with on Facebook. Nobody can log into a memorialized account and it cannot be changed unless a legacy contact has been set.

Legacy technology platforms

The relatively new legacy technology sector has two spheres of focus in its offerings at present. Firstly there are platforms, apps, products and services which enable the individual to create and share selective moments of either their own life story, spanning an entire lifetime, or that of another person, as life happens or in retrospect. This forms a digital legacy of your life, created through social media style platforms. A second type of legacy technology enables users to create in advance and schedule digital messages to be shared after death, in addition this can go a step further enabling our digital presence to live on by generating AI content based on our social media usage in life following our death.

Legacy technology as legacy curator

Two UK based social media style platforms which focus on creating and sharing life moments and memories which user can build to create a visual legacy of their life or that of another person are Liife and Lifetile. Firstly Liife provides a free social media platform enabling users to focus on life moments or memories to create a timeline of the story of their life. Events present and past can be shared only with those who participated in those events, feature in photos or who shared specific moments. Liife brings focus to personal and private memories and moments in contrasts to other social media platforms where photo sharing options are limited to private, public or friends. A person’s individual moment within their Liife timeline can be shared with the friends and family who were part of that moment so the photo and memories are automatically part of another persons timeline in the event of the death of a user.

Another platform flagged up by BBC Click was Lifetile, also a free service for digitally collating personal memories and sharing life stories through photos with private, shared and public settings whereby you can share your event on someone else’s timeline by tagging them. Liftile’s digital legacy feature is like a “living will”, you can choose what happens to your Lifetile content when you die, either appointing “executors” to carry out your digital legacy wishes ranging from deletion to making public your Lifetile memories. You can also add final words and a photo to be published in the event of your death.

DeadSocial, which we have already touched on above, offers alongside its free advice and tutorials around digital legacy planning and management its own platform, Legacy Builder. This digital legacy tool enables users to create posthumous messages in order to say “goodbye” to friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter. It is a free service for users to create private messages consisting of text, images and video which are saved and only sent to the allocated DeadSocial, Facebook and Twitter profiles once the person has passed away. Users assign one or more ‘digital executors’ who enter into a non-legally binding agreement confirming they will administer the user’s messages when they feel it is the right time to do so following the person’s death.

AI digital after-life after death

Two US based companies offer users a virtual digital AI after-life following death. Firstly Eterni.me offers artificial intelligence enabling you to live on in social media after your death by allowing access to your digital archives of social media account and digital content activities online during your lifetime. Eterni.me analyses your digital content and through an avatar recalls your memories and communicates with others after your death. Secondly Eter9 offers a similar artificial intelligence approach to digital life after death. Both platforms preserve your memories, life stories and interests, but Eter9 also enables you to even let your AI go on auto-pilot once it has built an algorithmic profile based on your lifetime interactions.

Privacy, security, legacy

Whether you have already considered your the legacy of your personal, genealogical and digital data legacy, or whether this is a new area of thinking for you, it is prudent to review end of life planning at intervals, as our lives and life around us change in relation to our digital activities on and off line.

You may love the idea of setting up an artificial intelligence which can try to perpetuate your social media activities after death or you may be content with locking down your digital privacy and security whilst provisioning for access to your digital legacy should you die.

Whichever reflects your position there may be discussions you need to have with loved ones about your own or their digital legacy. There may be manual back ups to be made, settings which need to be tweaked, or enquiries which you may wish to make with the platform providers you use on a regular basis. It’s clearly an area which needs forward planning, not least since we invest so much of our leisure and social time on such platforms, sharing our lives on social media and sharing our family’s historical lives through genealogical tools. What drives our interest in the past life of family members is the significance we see in that information for our own life an that of our family. How much valuable is our own personal legacy for our loved ones. To bequeath our digital legacy takes forward planning.


The information presented in this blog post was compiled from the websites of the companies mentioned and correspondence with those companies. The author and historytrace accept no liability for the accuracy of this information as it is subject to change. The reader is strongly advised to seek up to date information from individual companies and service providers about their privacy, security and legacy policies.


Hannah Gill, historytrace, 24/05/2016

At historytrace we can help you to explore your family’s past and your personal legacy, through close analysis of historical sources that bring to life your family heritage across Europe. Do get in touch using the Contact page of this website if our services could help you explore your family history on a deeper level.

You have been reading the historytracings blog post “Your Digital Legacy: Genealogical, Social Media and Legacy Technology”. Copyright text: www.historytrace.co.uk, 2016; copyright image: www.freeimages.com / Enzo Forciniti.

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