Computers of the Deceased

Discussion in 'Community Discussion' started by A.Goldberg, Feb 15, 2015.

  1. A.Goldberg macrumors 68020


    Jan 31, 2015
    Ok, so this is a touchy subject/ethical dilemma I've been thinking about for some time now.

    My older brother Ben died over a year ago at the age of 26 due to sudden, unexpected, and obviously serious health problems. He was extremely brilliant, a great athlete, a good person, and had a bright future. He lived in NYC and shortly after his death everything got moved out of his apartment.

    For the past year I've had his Mac Pro set up at my place in Boston. I don't use frequently but I do get some use out of the Adobe CS suite he has installed as he had an interest in photography. He didn't have a password on the computer so I just set up a separate user account and haven't ventured into his account or any of his files.

    My question is I don't know what to do with his files...

    One part of me wants to explore everything. A part of me wants to feel like I know him better and I am curious of what things I might find that will make me appreciate him more. What aspects of his life didn't I know that I wish I did?

    At the same time I'm afraid of what I might find if I start looking- internet history, iMessages, email, etc that might ruin the way I remember him. I could set boundaries but even with 100% honest intentions I'm afraid I could run into something I don't want to see.

    Another part of me wants to delete everything to avoid the temptation. I know for me my computer is something I consider private and I don't think I'd want people rummaging through it after I'm gone. I have nothing "abnormal to hide" but I wouldn't want my parents to read a conversation between my girlfriend and me. At the same time, I fear I may later regret deleting his files and feel like I deleted part of him.

    I've asked my parents about the issue and they didn't seem to have an opinion. I don't think they necessarily understand how integrated a computer can be in a younger person's life. I've talked to a psychologist about the matter but she didn't really say anything other than reflect my thoughts back to me.

    I know I'm not done grieving Ben's death and I don't know how long it will take. As long as I don't open or delete the files I'm not really making any decisions either way. I feel as if my temptations to open or delete his files change daily but the more time goes by the more I want to do something.

    Does anyone have an experience with this? What is the ethical thing to do here?
  2. Peace macrumors Core


    Apr 1, 2005
    Space--The ONLY Frontier
    Snip :

    "He lived in NYC and shortly after his death everything got moved out of his apartment. "

    < fill in this area with more info >

    "For the past year I've had his Mac Pro set up at my place in Boston."

    How did you get it ? Is it yours legally ?
  3. iBlazed macrumors 68000


    Feb 27, 2014
    New Jersey, United States
    Isn't that something you would assume given it's his brother? When he said his apartment was cleared out shortly after his death, that's usually done by family. Being that he unfortunately died so young, he most likely didn't have a will either. Regardless, definitely not the first question I would ask in this situation.

    OP, I'm really sorry for your loss. Hard to fathom the devastation of losing a sibling at such a young age. I wouldn't want someone going through my files in the event of my untimely death. Have you considered NOT looking through the files, but transferring them to an encrypted external hard drive instead? This way you're not getting rid of anything so you have that peace of mind, but you also don't have to see them every day when you're using the computer.
  4. aaronvan Suspended


    Dec 21, 2011
    República Cascadia
    No ethical dilemma at all. It's your computer now and he was your brother.

    It's no different than if you had a trunk filled with his old papers and such.

    Preserve anything that keeps him alive in your memory and toss the rest.

    Just my .0002 cents.
  5. MICHAELSD macrumors 68040


    Jul 13, 2008
    Personally if I died suddenly I would want people looking at my computer even though my account is password-protected. There's an entire side to me most don't know about, plus I have a few musical projects and scripts on there. I would prefer people know about them at that point rather than keep them as a secret perpetually. You may come away pleasantly surprised. Stay away from personal messages and browsing history, brace yourself for any explicit files you may find, and prepare yourself to learn about your brother.

    I'd venture to say that creative types should have their computers browsed as there might be some great projects and works by them that were unseen/unknown about by others whilst people who mainly used their computers for social media and just general use will not have the same breadth of a potential legacy on there if any positives at all. He had a Mac Pro so there should be creative work.

    So yes, my opinion would be to browse his files but no good will come out of browsing his web history. Otherwise you could miss out on some great new memories of him.
  6. kolax macrumors G3

    Mar 20, 2007
    I would zap the disk. If you sniff around enough in his account, you 'could' get passwords for things like Facebook and really start to look into his personal life.

    I can understand people wanting to find pieces of work on computers that may give the deceased a legacy (e.g. music, manuscript, the funniest joke in the world..) but there's also the possibility you might find out something you wish you hadn't.

    My disks are all encrypted. When I die, I don't want my family or friends looking through my personal content that I purposely chose not to share.

    My view: may he, and his data, rest in peace.
  7. Huntn macrumors P6


    May 5, 2008
    The Misty Mountains
    I agree in the basis of what you are saying , howeve it's a computer, not a trunk full of personal momentos.

    Unless the OP expect to find some kind of personal diary to get know his brothers better, expect to find things like programs, games, financial info, official correspondence, and maybe adult material. If you think those kinds of things will make you feel better or know your brother better, have at it. However there could be a big surprise positive or negative, something he hid from the family, like he was a secret billionaire involved in a charitable foundation. ;) But frankly thats a double edged sword don't you think?

    If I was in this situation, I'd probably crank up the computer with the intent of wiping it after I made sure there was nothing important on it, like a bank account that needs to be closed. Family photos might also be of interest.
  8. Gutwrench Contributor


    Jan 2, 2011
    First, you have my sincere condolences over the loss of your brother.

    And the fact that you raise this question and have not explored beyond your partition indicates you're a decent, disciplined, mature, and thoughtful person.

    My opinion is to venture in those areas doesn't violate any moral or ethical boundaries. Obviously what matters is your comfort level and can you manage the risk of discovering anything you may wish you hadn't. You've had possession of it for a year and you haven't yielded to your curiosity yet. I wonder if you really need to.

    Good luck and best wishes as you work through this.
  9. sdilley14, Feb 16, 2015
    Last edited: Feb 16, 2015

    sdilley14 macrumors 65816

    Feb 8, 2007
    Mesa, AZ
    I personally would not dig through the files at all. I would delete them all. IMO, the risk of stumbling upon something that you might not want to see far outweighs the reward of finding something that will make you feel better about him.

    Or if you don't want to totally delete everything (if it feels emotionally cruel or something along those lines) you could buy a cheap external hard drive, place all of the files on that, and keep that drive stored away somewhere. That way the files at least aren't on the local drive and it reduces some of the immediate temptation to dig and snoop.

    This does bring up an interesting modern dilemma. How do you handle computers and personal data after someone passes away? I'm thinking of it more as a service of request of the person passing away more than the surviving family. Personally, if I passed away, I would not want someone digging around through my computer. I wonder if you could make some sort of request in your will asking to have your computer wiped clean after you pass away?
  10. D.T. macrumors G3


    Sep 15, 2011
    Vilano Beach, FL
    Very sorry to hear about your loss, sounds like he was a heck of an amazing person :)

    Yeah, my gut reaction agrees with the above, just with added caveat of “proceed with care” . I would think there would be some photos you’d like to preserve, maybe even share with the family, maybe some favorite music of his. Media in the obvious locations.

    Some other data, for example emails, are probably best left alone, things are easily misconstrued, and I don’t imagine there’s much that would clarify his life or death for you.

    Take care.
  11. phrehdd macrumors 68040


    Oct 25, 2008
    I've been in the last few years through your situation twice with family members.

    My solution - I copied all the stuff to a drive and did nothing until I opted to go through them. This allowed me time to grieve, time to gain perspective. Incidentally, I am glad I went through the files and opted to review about 90 percent. Perhaps holding on to the data and waiting until later to decide makes practical sense.
  12. Apple fanboy macrumors Penryn

    Apple fanboy

    Feb 21, 2012
    Behind the Lens, UK
    As others have said, sorry to hear about your loss.

    This is an interesting topic that I hadn't previously thought of.

    I guess your view on this depends on how you use your own computer. I'd have no issue with anybody looking through my files after I've gone. As a photographer I'd actually be quite happy that somebody was enjoying my work. But you have to decide if you want to discover things about your brother you might not have known. Sadly as none of us knew him, we can't advise whether this is likely to be a good or bad experience for you. Perhaps talk to somebody close to him, who might have a better understanding of what he was like rather than your parents.
    Also this might be something you choose to do at a later date, so a back up would be a good idea.
  13. Gav2k macrumors G3


    Jul 24, 2009
    Log in and save his iPhoto library to an external drive.

    Log out and back into your account then delete his user account.

    His personal live was just that. Personal. You could end up with unanswered questions and doubts about your brother if you go digging.
  14. mscriv, Feb 16, 2015
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2015

    mscriv macrumors 601


    Aug 14, 2008
    Dallas, Texas
    You could ask a trusted friend who didn't know your brother well to go through it for you and delete anything that could have a negative impact if you were to come across it. Then you could feel free to go through the rest of it with the comfort of knowing that you won't find anything that might change your opinion or tarnish your memory of him.

    Going through a lost loved one's belongings is often an important part of the grieving process. If you have a nagging feeling that you need to do it then I don't know that the feeling is going to go away. I applaud your apprehension and think it's wise to recognize how finding something could possibly change your view of him. Many in this thread have offered helpful suggestions and I've simply offered another option in the hopes that you will find something that you are comfortable with. All the best in making this tough choice.
  15. talmy macrumors 601


    Oct 26, 2009
    I would suggest archiving the account (it's an option when you delete the account) and saving it away in case the contents might be useful. Probably not much chance of the contents being important, but you never know.

    Not quite the same thing, but when my father died six years ago I faced not only a computer but also piles of paper. It would have been a disaster to have tossed it all, especially anything related to financial matters. And he had important email contacts as well. But I must admit to being shocked (or perhaps amused) by my 89 year old father's porn cache.
  16. tayluftwaffel macrumors member

    Dec 1, 2014
    I would personally want my computer files to be accessible, if they need to be accessed for any reason. However, I would appreciate no snooping. But I suppose that my family would be going through my physical belongings, so I guess there is not that much of an issue. I'd be dead, so it wouldn't make a difference to me I guess..
  17. Xiroteus macrumors 65816

    Mar 31, 2012
    Sorry for the loss of your bother.

    Personally I would be curious about photographs, they can mean a lot and it is possible they could have some really good one. I know most people likely post everything online these days. I would still be curious.
  18. A.Goldberg thread starter macrumors 68020


    Jan 31, 2015
    Thanks to everyone who has contributed with advice and for the thoughtful condolences.

    I'm not quite sure what information you're looking for here. Although his health deteriorated quickly, a will was actually drawn up before his death. Being 26 years old he didn't have substantial assets as it was. He lived alone, was not married, and had no children thus making things very simple. His belongs were ultimately dispersed between my parents, myself, my sister, and his closest friends.

    My brother was a finance major who worked in investment banking. He had a longtime hobby of photography and travel. He was very creative, artistic, and hilariously funny. Ben was brilliantly smart and did very well in school. I'd be interested in finding some pictures of his experiences and reading some of his college essays and such.

    After reading the responses I think I will continue to leave the files untouched for the time being. If I find the need to wipe the hard drive I will back up his files. I think I will wait in order to reflect upon the "ethics" of looking through his files and to solidify how I remember my brother and be comfortable with it.

    I have had more than one past experience where I have made an honestly inadvertent discovery of information that has substantially changed my perception of people in a negative light. People I trusted or thought I knew turn out to have a whole other side of their life. I'm sure most others have had this experience in one way or another.
  19. satcomer, Feb 20, 2015
    Last edited: Apr 11, 2015
  20. A.Goldberg thread starter macrumors 68020


    Jan 31, 2015
    I thought I'd report that I have recently removed the 2 hard drives (Main + Time Machine backup) from the Mac Pro. I ended up installing a 240GB SSD Hard Drive along with all of his software. I upgraded from 4GB RAM to 12GB. Both updates have made a profound improvement on speed of the computer.

    I feel like his files are something to be looked at later down the road when I have more prospective. I had my parents put the drives in their safe deposit box at their bank.

    As for the computer, it run perfectly. It's nice to be using a possession that was a big part of my brother's life. I decided to keep the background he was using, which was a photograph he took of a herd of wild elephants on an African safari. :)
  21. bunnspecial macrumors 603


    May 3, 2014

    I missed seeing this when it was first posted.

    First of all, let me offer you my sincerest condolences on your brother. It sounds like he was around my age, and I can't imagine losing any of my close friends-much less a sibling-so suddenly and at such a young age.

    I think your current course of action is a wise one, and I think several of the other suggestions here have merit-in particular the ones for a disinterested 3rd party to look through them, or to not view things like email or messages.

    I will also offer an anecdote. I had a high school friend(with whom I'd only had cursory contact in the past several years) who took his own life about a year ago. The circumstances leading up to it were complex and that particular turn was not completely unexpected, but none the less it was a very unfortunate and sad situation. About 6 months after his death, my friend's mother started looking through his computer. She uncovered emails that discussed an affair that the individual had with a teacher while he was in high school(in particular, emails between my friend and the teacher). This was something that was somewhat common knowledge, and that my friend talked fairly openly about, although his mother did not know. Needless to say(and understandably), she was quite shocked and upset about this.

    Ultimately, with the email evidence, the teacher lost her teaching certificate and was forced to resign, although this process took 8 years longer than it should have(a complaint was made while my friend was still in high school, but was never followed through).

    I'm not telling that to imply that any sort of similar situation might have happened with your brother, but just that-as other have said-you may find something that completely changes your outlook. If such a thing exists, it's probably best that you don't know it. On the other hand, as someone else mentioned, you may find an entirely different dimension of your brother's life that you may not have known of or not known well, and will give you many more fond memories of him. Even something simple like an email exchange with someone you may or may not know might bring back good memories of how your brother interacted with other people.

    So, with all of that said, I do like the idea above of possibly having someone you know well but who did not know your brother look through the files and in some way get rid of anything that you might not wish to see.

    Finally, I'll add in that I often buy used computers from complete strangers where the old owners are not diligent about removing personal files. I often give them a cursory examination just for curiosity-mostly about when the computer was last used and what sort of work it was used for-but DO NOT dig into the previous owner's personal business. Typically, I will just wipe and do a clean OS install.

    Last fall, I bought a black Macbook that was advertised as having a dead hard drive. I took the seller at their word, although I did boot it far enough to see it hang at the Apple. I pulled the hard drive, stuck in a small SSD, and went on using the computer. The old hard drive would mount, so was not completely dead, but just unreadable. After acquiring a copy of Disk Warrior, I attempted to run it on that drive. After doing so, I was left with a fully bootable, completely repaired hard drive. I looked at enough to realize that the previous owner was a college professor, and the drive had documents that included things like student grades and social security numbers. I immediately pulled the drive back out of that computer, stuck it in an external enclosure, and did a 7-pass zero on it(just to be overly cautious-I think that's the only time I've ever done a 7 pass). I still use the drive as a diagnostic/testing drive, but didn't want to take the smallest chance of having that sort of personal data in my possession-or even worse having it stolen by the wrong person. Yes, I realize that I was probably being paranoid, but one can't be too cautious with that sort of stuff. Incidentally, as an educator, I keep the minimal amount of student data possible on my computer for similar reasons. I wish the previous owner of my Macbook had just taken the drive out and kept it before selling it...
  22. wct097 macrumors 6502

    Nov 30, 2010
    One of my mom's friends had her estranged husband die a while back. They gave me his laptop and asked me to clean it up and make sure everything was up to date so they could use it. My mom warned me that the deceased had apparently been cheating with a woman he met on the internet and not to be surprised if I came across strange stuff.

    I went through it and pulled out pictures of him and his family to retain for them, and erased the sketchy stuff. I felt like it insulated the family from the harm of seeing some of those things and also was respectful to the deceased.
  23. A.Goldberg thread starter macrumors 68020


    Jan 31, 2015
    Bunn, thanks for the kind words and thoughts. I too am sorry for your loss. I've actually lost three people I went to high school with (I graduated 8 years ago) this year (that's 3/140 students) to just suicide, though I was not particuarly close with any of them. It's terrible. Be warned suicide rates are on the rise.

    My brother's death was due to illness, so the circumstances are not particularly mysterious in my mind. I am very grateful for that. Ben lived a very open life as far as I know, always said what he was thinking, didn't seem to create secrets, and was always very willing to share this possessions. It makes me think there is probably nothing bad. Finding a person I trust to review the contents I find personally difficult because the people I trust the most knew him too. I wouldn't want to burden someone to keep some secret if they found it. If it was one of my parent's computers, I'd have no problem looking, but being a young adult where technology is central to so many aspects of life, I'm just not sure what might be there.

    That was really nice of you to do. I hope you didn't run into too much "sketchy stuff"! Also to Bunn, I appreciate your responsibility of destroying the personal information you came across. Shame on the professor for not properly destroying that information or the drive.
  24. Fifteen20s macrumors regular

    Jun 9, 2012
    Wow, this post really makes you think. I hit reply to answer then sat here for 15-20min thinking how I would want someone to treat my PC if I were in that situation.

    Although I do have pictures Im sure the family would love to have, I think it would be best overall if my PC had a wipe before it ever went to anyone.

    Is there anything socially wrong on it, no. However being a single male I do have things on there I would not show my grandma. People are entitled to and have their own private things and someones PC is one of those. I do not feel death removes that right to privacy.

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