Have you ever thought about what will happen to your digital footprint after your passing? Or perhaps you’ve pondered this question over a deceased loved one?
The topic is morbid, but worth looking into. We continually accumulate vast amounts of data about ourselves on various online platforms. Our DMs, emails, photos, and videos will persist after we are no longer here to lord over them. Who has the access to this information? Who will decide the fate of our accounts?
Major social media platforms offer two primary options for handling data after one's passing: remembrance or deletion.
Remembrance is a way for friends and family to hold online memorials. Most major social platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, provide this option for accounts of deceased individuals. When an account owner is reported as deceased, their Facebook profile will be captioned with "In memoriam", for example. The account, including shared posts and other media, will remain visible for those it was shared with during the user’s life.
Another option is permanent deletion of the account and all data shared on the platform. This can be done by informing the platform in advance that you want your account to be deleted upon your passing, or it can be carried out by a relative post mortem. In the latter case, the family member must provide the platform with a death certificate or an obituary as proof of one’s passing.
Google accounts adhere to similar logic. Google's Inactive Account Manager helps specify when an account can be deemed inactive, who has access to one’s Google services, and whether the inactive account and its data will be deleted entirely. Alternatively, a family member can provide Google proof of one’s death, and request the account's deletion. If none of these actions are undertaken, the account will remain indefinitely online – unless Google removes it due to inactivity.
TikTok, on the other hand, lacks a a Remembrance feature, and there is no option for relatives or representatives to request the deletion of a deceased user's account. If an account remains unused for over 180 days, the username will revert back to a random numeric sequence, but the content therein will remain intact.
Derelict Accounts Pose Cybersecurity Risks
Why should anything be done with these accounts at all? The answer: unused accounts pose cybersecurity risks. Accounts can be hacked and used for spam or phishing attempts. Imagine how distressing it would be for grieving friends and family members to see accounts of the deceased liking pages, sending messages, or making requests that are not genuine.
If criminals can get to our user data and other digital assets, they can be used to commit identity theft or create false user profiles. For instance, if a bank loan is secured with a forged identity, it can lead to legal and financial problems for the family of the deceased.
A third issue regards ethics. If we haven't considered or communicated our wishes regarding our data’s fate after our demise, those left behind have a mountain to ponder over. Who manages our data? Who can use our texts, images, and videos – and for what purpose?
Save your preferences on online platforms and inform your loved ones. Set a reminder for yourself to revisit this in around five years’ time – most likely there will be more to update.
It's important to review your digital platforms, their terms of service, and what options they provide regarding this. Consider who you would like to be granted access to your data, messages, and media, or if it would be better for them to be deleted altogether. Save your preferences on online platforms and inform your loved ones. Set a reminder for yourself to revisit this in around five years’ time – most likely there will be more to update.
The Dead Don't Click
We can influence how our data is used after our passing. The question is how many of us will take advantage of this opportunity. Only 15 per cent of Finns create a traditional will, and presumably an even smaller percentage is thinking about their "digital will."
On a personal level, death is always a tragedy. On a collective level, however, death is a societal concern. It has been estimated that by 2070, there will be more profiles of deceased users than living ones on Facebook – that’s only 50 years away. Profiles of the deceased will pose a business problem for these platforms. Profiles occupy space and consume data without generating revenue – the dead don't click on ads.
If platforms start removing profiles of the deceased, they will also erase a vast amount of collective memory. Perhaps they will preserve accounts that continue to generate clicks, like the YouTube channels of deceased social media influencers. Is it up to the tech giants to decide what is preserved? Do we want technology companies to become the gatekeepers of our collective past?
Presently, legislation such as the GDPR applies only to living individuals. However, in 2018, the EU published a study suggesting the need for common rules in the EU for identifying, protecting, and transferring digital inheritance to heirs or other authorized entities.
Who Decides an Avatar's Death?
Our digital footprint keeps growing and taking on new forms. Consider avatars, digital representations of online selves. For the most part, they tend to be cartoony representations or some measure of visual wish fulfilment.
When an avatar is enhanced by voice – your own voice – the experience reaches new heights. Amazon has introduced a service that can transform an under 60-second voice clip into a complete voice clone. It is indeed an enticing thought that I could command my offspring to do their homework and chores even while typing away at the office. But is it heartwarming or somewhat eerie when a deceased grandmother can be made to read bedtime stories to her grandchildren?
Many tech companies are building a digital afterlife at this very moment. Somnium Space, who are building a blockchain-powered VR platform, "offer their users the prospect of eternal life in the metaverse". In South Korea, a mother met her deceased daughter in a virtual setting.
Is it wrong to have the option to chat with the avatar of a deceased parent if it brings comfort and helps us cope with grief? Who decides when it's time for an avatar to die?
It's worth taking time to plan out our digital footprint’s fate upon our passing. In the future, there will be an even greater number of questions around the issue.
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