How to remove a deceased person’s digital footprint

As older generations increasingly adopt the internet, it’s vital to know how to remove a deceased person's digital footprint

Tuesday, 19 September, 2023

If you’re reading this article, you may be facing one of the most traumatic aspects of losing a friend or loved one.

Alongside organising a funeral and arranging for a will to be read, there’s the grief-fuelled task of notifying companies and institutions about that person’s passing.

Responding to incoming missives is relatively straightforward. It’s easy to open a letter or email, copy and paste a short pre-written explanatory note, and return it to the sender.

But how can you remove a deceased person’s digital footprint, especially if you don’t know how far those footprints have travelled?

Footprints in the sand

Like walking across a beach, our digital footprints become harder to find with the passage of time.

If someone died recently, it’ll be possible to view their online browsing histories. If their computer has been sitting idle for more than a month, that process becomes much harder.

That’s assuming you can even gain access to those personal devices, of course.

From biometric logins to alphanumeric passcodes, it’s deliberately difficult for a third party to access computers, smartphones and tablets.

Apple devices are impossible to unlock without the registered owner’s biometric credentials and/or password. Try accessing that person’s iCloud account instead.

Indeed, cloud storage makes any digital device’s contents more accessible.

It may also be possible to rescue files and documents from non-Apple hardware by ejecting their SD memory cards.

In many instances, you’ll have no option other than to reset computers and smartphones to factory settings.

Some ISPs automatically destroy digital assets after a certain period of inactivity, while many online accounts will be deactivated in a similar vein.

What’s the password?

Everyone has a web of digital assets – online banking credentials, social media profiles, email inboxes, ecommerce accounts and so forth.

When you want to remove a deceased person’s digital footprint, start by looking through their preferred web browser’s list of bookmarks, favourites or saved sites.

It doesn’t automatically follow that there’ll be an account for each site – some might not require registration – but there’s a high likelihood.

If the deceased person hasn’t created a list of passwords, or added password hints to these bookmarks, you might have to laboriously reset each account’s password to log on.

(It’s often possible to guess a password. It may be a close relative’s name, a memorable date like their birthday, or simply ‘password’ or ‘123456’.)

Foresighted individuals might have used a platform like Google’s Inactive Account Manager to assign a trusted contact to take over their account, but let’s assume this hasn’t happened in your case.

We’ll also assume the dearly departed hadn’t compiled a list of digital login details on a platform like Secure Safe or After Note, or handed a file of account credentials to their solicitor.

If they have, these details should be listed in their will, or mentioned in a letter of wishes.

Banking on it

Transactional accounts will typically be linked to a bank account that’s often frozen after a death certificate is presented to the bank or building society. At this point, things get harder.

Different financial institutions, retailers and service providers have varying criteria for allowing a third party to access personal documentation.

A death certificate is often needed as evidence, while privacy policy documents (20,000 words long in the case of Google Nest devices) stipulate what can and can’t happen to each account.

Some social media platforms support deletion of a dead person’s account, while others merely deactivate it; a few sites will delete accounts if they’re inactive long-term.

LinkedIn and Instagram are among the platforms enabling accounts to be memorialised. They remain online and visible, but can’t be modified or edited.

It may be necessary to individually contact people who’ve emailed the deceased person, though setting an Autoreply message simplifies this arduous process going forwards.

Finally, the UK Government’s Tell Us Once platform will notify most councils and government departments about someone’s death, erasing their records from databases.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!