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Putting our digital life to rest

Company offers tools to manage technological assets after people die

When you die, what happens to your Facebook page, your e-mail box or your online bill-paying accounts?

All of the password-protected Internet activity you engage in – does it just sit in cyberspace indefinitely?

A young Madison, Wis., company, Entrustet, wants to help you decide who should be in charge of those accounts, and give you the chance to wipe them out altogether if they are never meant to be viewed by someone else.

Entrustet is the brainchild of two young serial entrepreneurs and graduates of UW-Madison: Nathan Lustig and Jesse Davis.

Davis realized there were questions over access to cyber accounts while reading the New York Times best-selling book “The World is Flat” by Thomas Friedman. He was fascinated by the story of Justin Ellsworth, a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq in 2004, whose parents had to go to court to get access to Ellsworth’s Yahoo account.

“I’ve got over 170 online accounts,” Davis said. “It became clear to me all these mundane things we do, like checking e-mails or Facebook, they are real assets to us.”

An analyst with Gartner, a Stamford, Conn.-based global information technology research and consultant firm, said the concept holds a lot of promise.

“I think the idea of a commercial entity which exists to meaningfully protect precious digital assets is fascinating,” said Whit Andrews, Gartner vice president. “Nobody wants to happen what happened to my great-great-great uncles,” whose letters, found in a shed, were turned into paper airplanes by the children who found them, Andrews said.

But he also has some doubts. “I’m really interested to hear why I would trust somebody I’ve never heard of to do that,” Andrews said. “A startup does not bring with it the level of gravitas necessary for me to feel comfortable with them as my asset steward into eternity.”

Davis, who had run a water cooler delivery business in the campus area, researched the subject for several months and found no device or process to handle those needs.

Enter Nathan Lustig, one of three students who had built up the online ticket sales website ExchangeHut, and later sold it to CDI America in what was described as a mid-six-figure deal. Lustig was interested.

“With ExchangeHut, we had all sorts of passwords. We realized if (the company’s programmer) had gotten hit by a proverbial bus, we would have been completely out of luck,” Lustig said.

Entrustet hopes to fill the void for three types of customers: consumers, business owners and lawyers. The average consumer is the main target to start with.

Using Entrustet’s Account Guardian, a free service, clients identify their digital assets on a secure list, name up to 10 heirs to those accounts, and choose a digital executor who will carry out the client’s wishes.

During a five-week test period of 1,000 people who looked at Account Guardian online, about 250 signed up. Since the website made its official launch April 20, for every 100 people who have come to the site, as many as 12 of them have signed up, Lustig said. “That’s much higher than we expected,” he added.

Word about the product spreads quickly because of its procedures.

Gartner’s Andrews said that to gain the public’s trust, Entrustet will have to either build a business that proves completely trustworthy over time or leverage someone else’s trustworthiness, such as partnering with a lawyer.


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