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A view from the Clouds

September 2009


“Cloud” computing is all the rage at the moment.  This means using your computer as little more than a communication device to connect to some much bigger and more powerful machine, where all the clever stuff takes place, and all the information is stored.  It is all out there somewhere, in the “cloud”

You are already familiar with this if you use an online email service, such as Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail.  All your emails, and any documents attached to them, are stored by the email service on their computers, and you can access them from any computer provided you have the passwords.

Much more complex stuff can be done the same way; you can do all your word processing and spreadsheets that way (have a look at Google docs, which is their online version of Word, Excel and the rest; Click here).

There is a good deal to be said for the Cloud.  It means you can conduct your business from someone else’s laptop on the beach in Greece as easily as from your office in Manchester, provided that you have a workable internet connection.

It also insulates you against some disasters; if your computer dies, or is stolen, everything you need is safely stored out there in the Cloud.

This is all well and good, and I use such services happily, but what happens if I die?  Who actually owns all the emails stored in my Gmail account, somewhere in America (I assume)?  More gloomily, can my executors find them if they need to?

I started ploughing through the Terms and Conditions of a number of these companies, and didn’t get very far.  What I did establish is that there is little consistency.  Google and Microsoft don’t seem even to allow for the possibility of the death of a user.  Yahoo have considered it but their approach is fierce, saying that “any rights to…contents within your account terminate upon your death” and they cheerfully add that once they know that you are yourself sitting on a cloud, your account “may be terminated and all contents deleted”.

Microsoft goes a step further, and sternly warns that you should make your own copies of everything stored on their computers, in case they decide to close it down without notice.

This is, of course precisely the opposite of what the service is for – it’s meant to relive you of all that storage and back up business.

The conclusion I reached from these, and a few others I checked which took similar lines, is that, as ever, it’s all down to us, if we want to be in control.

So what I suggest, if you have anything online that might need someone’s attention when you are gone, is that you write a letter to your executors giving the various key passwords, and lodge it with your will.  They can then login and take appropriate action, even if that is simply to close an email account.

The exception to this rule is online banking details; please do not write these down anywhere, or give them to anyone, however trusted, unless it is with the knowledge of the bank (such as under a power of attorney).  Banks are well used to dealing with the death of their clients, and if your executors know of the existence of an account, there should not be a problem.  They can set up their own email access if they need it.


Webster went to Oxford

I held my seminar “How to get the better of your computer” at a weekend Wadham College, Oxford, in July, and what a pleasure it was to spend the time with a typically sparky group of Oldie readers, ranging from a retired anaesthetist to an editor of academic journals.  During the day, we covered a lot of ground, and I think we all learned something from each other.  Of course, the lovely setting, perfect summer weather, and taking all our meals in Hall did no harm to the general good feeling, and we rounded off the Saturday evening watching a splendid performance of Romeo and Juliet in the garden.

It is always fun to get together with Oldie readers, and I very much hope to repeat the seminar again soon.  Watch this space.