What happens to your data after you die?
By Dr Elaine Kasket
1 Your digital footprint will one day become your digital remains
If a complete stranger were granted access to every scrap of recorded information about you that exists in the world, would they be able to stand up at your funeral and deliver a personal, moving eulogy that captured the essence of you? Thanks to the modern digital world, the likely answer is yes.
If you’re not active on social media, you might think that you’d be leaving behind very little in the way of a meaningful or personally telling digital legacy. Social media, however, are merely the tip of the little toe when it comes to our digital footprints. Anyone who has access to your devices and accounts after you die – including all the material you never intended to share – could tell quite a lot about you.
Formerly ephemeral communications are now comprehensively stored in searchable, time- and date-stamped emails and message threads. Once untrackable movements are logged by our smartphones, smartwatches, and facial recognition technologies in public spaces. Internet of Things (IoT) devices like video doorbells and virtual assistants are filling our homes.
And our internal desires, thoughts, and feelings can be discerned by innumerable others through our search histories, websites we’ve visited, and the documents and photos we store in cloud accounts and our data-storage devices.
Little wonder that the algorithms seem to know us better than we know ourselves – in this hyperconnected and electronically surveilled world, we are constantly feeding them our data.
A 2019 survey found that 1 in 4 people in the UK want all of these data to be removed from the internet when they die, but no legal or practical mechanisms exist for this to occur. There is no magical switch that is thrown, no virtual worms that traverse the internet nibbling away all traces of us when we die.
Physical death does not equal digital death. Our personal data is simply too voluminous, spread too far and wide throughout the digital world, and too under the control of innumerable third parties to simply call it back home to ‘bury’ it.
2 Social media are becoming digital cemeteries
Dedicated digital cemeteries do exist, the oldest being The World Wide Cemetery, founded in 1995, where people can still visit online graves and leave virtual flowers and tributes. Memorial gardens are dotted around the virtual world Second Life.
Many funeral homes now offer online condolence books, and some physical cemeteries even feature graves with digital components such as video screens or QR codes affixed to traditional headstones. Scores of digital legacy companies appear regularly, often going out of business shortly thereafter.
None of these digital cemeteries can hold a memorial candle, though, to the platforms that never intended to become online places of rest in the first place: sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Facebook has been memorialising profiles in one form or another since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007, after which users pleaded with the site not to delete profiles that had become memorials for the lost.
Scholars at the Oxford Internet Institute have estimated that the number of deceased users on Facebook could be as high as 4.9 billion by 2100. The dead are also mounting up on Instagram, which also memorialises profiles, and Twitter may follow suit. In November 2019, Twitter cancelled an imminent inactive-account cull in response to an outcry from bereaved people who feared the loss of their deceased loved ones’ Twitter feeds.
Social media companies may be actively trying to work out what to do about the data of the deceased on their servers, but dead people’s information is all over the internet, across all sorts of websites and apps. Many – perhaps even most – of the entities that manage our data are not planning well for the end from the beginning, so information can stick around online for an indeterminate period of time.
We should never assume, however, that online is forever. Disappearance of online data is inevitable through deliberate culls, accidental data loss, and companies going bust.
3 People are struggling to make plans for their digital legacies
It’s not only organisations that are flummoxed by what to do about digital legacies. It’s us, the people who are accumulating them. Less than half of adults in the UK have made a traditional will, and far fewer have considered what will happen to their digital one.
In the Digital Legacy Association’s 2017 Digital Death Survey, 83 per cent of respondents had made no plans at all for their digital legacies. A handful of people – 15.2 per cent – had made their wishes known for their Facebook accounts using the Legacy Contact feature. Legacy Contact allows you to appoint a trusted person to manage your memorialised account after you die, and you can also stipulate if you want the account deleted.
Whether instructions left on Legacy Contact or any other online platform would hold up in UK courts, however, is another matter. As in many realms of modern life, this is an area where laws and regulations are not keeping pace with technology. GDPR and the UK’s Data Protection Act 2018 don’t comment on what should happen to the digitally stored information of the dead, who are no longer entitled to data protection.
Service providers are understandably reluctant to hand over account contents or access to next of kin, especially when that’s likely to compromise other (living) people’s privacy.
Laws governing wills and probate don’t help much either when it comes to digital material. To bequeath something to someone in the UK it has to be tangible or valuable, and your social media profiles might not be judged to be either. In addition, you can’t pass on what you don’t actually own in the first place.
You do not own your social media profiles. Even if you’d like to, you cannot pass on an iTunes or Kindle library, since you have only purchased a license to watch, listen or read while you’re alive. The vast majority of your online accounts and their contents are non-transferable: one account, one user.
It may be a while before coherent, enforceable systems are instituted to govern what should happen to the data of the deceased. Until then, the companies to whom we entrust our data when we’re alive largely decide what happens to it upon death and who can access it.
In this legal and regulatory void, we can only make arrangements as best we can. For sentimental and practical material that might be valuable to our loved ones, we need to leave behind instructions for how to access it or – even better – back it up in secure but accessible formats that are not under the control of online service providers. In the not-too-distant future, digital estate planning may be a career all its own, or at least a necessary component of an existing profession.
4 It is impossible to predict how digital legacies will be meaningful to the bereaved
Our expectations that ‘normal’ grief will follow predictable, orderly stages is encouraged by our algorithmic environment. If you type ‘stages of…’ into a search engine, that engine will likely suggestion completion with ‘grief’. If you type ‘grief’, the engine will likely suggest ‘stages of’.
Despite what you and the algorithms might think, however, bereavement is actually incredibly, spectacularly idiosyncratic. Just as every relationship we have in life is unique, each bereavement is particular too. Despite dominating the popular discourse for the latter half of the 20th Century, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous grief stages – which were actually based upon qualitative research done with dying people, not bereaved people – boast little empirical support.
Across cultures and millennia, people have continued bonds with their dead in various ways, and we cannot predict what digital artifacts will be important in helping a bereaved person feel a thread of connection to those gone before.
For every person that relies upon a memorialised Facebook profile in their grief, there will be another that wishes it would just disappear. A preserved Twitter profile might be an absolute lifeline to friends, but the family might want it removed, perhaps imagining it’s not important to anyone. There is no rule book for what should and should not be important to someone in grief.
An astonishing and unpredictable variety of digital artifacts have been reported to me as being sentimentally significant to bereaved people. The digital recording of her husband’s heartbeat, stored in iTunes on a widow’s phone. The way that a woman’s brother organised and named his files on his laptop, giving her a window into how he thought and reasoned. A spam email from a woman’s deceased friend whose account was hacked – even though she knew it came from a hacker, she didn’t want to erase it, because it was his name in her inbox. A mother’s search history on her laptop, revealing to her daughter what she was thinking about in the last days of her life.
And finally, Google Street View, haunted by those who are no longer at that address. There is dad, watering the front lawn. There is a fondly remembered pet, peeking out the window of the house. There is grandma, sitting on the porch where she always did, waiting for the school bus to bring her grandchildren home. Even Google Earth is full of ghosts.
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