:: Privacy, State of tech

Data of the Dead: What Happens to Our Data After We Die?

During our waking hours, we are more likely concerned with privacy and security as the current problems of living with the internet. But the more time we spend online, the more we scatter pieces of ourselves around the web that together form pictures of our real lives, identities, tastes, preferences, habits and opinions. It’s a concept many of us don’t give much thought to yet, but what happens when you die in this world and the virtual parts of you go on existing? What happens to the data you leave behind? And who are the gatekeepers to your internet afterlife?

Digital Heirlooms or Not?

In the scenario where you pass away and your family and friends need access to your information, how difficult do you think it would be for them? As privacy policies dictate, the companies who have your account information are certainly not going to give anything up without your password. The whole point of that is so that no one else can access your information. If you die, the company remains in possession of whatever digital assets that you left behind.

So considering this, passing on your passwords is at the top of the list of important things as well as naming a “digital executor” in your will.

But what’s a digital executor and what kinds of things can they do, you might ask? The digital archive and planning website, Everplans, lists that digital executors can do things like closing certain online accounts, (such as social media accounts, subscription services, or any accounts that are paid for like Amazon Prime or Spotify) archiving personal files, photos, videos, and other content you’ve created, and deleting files from your computer and hard drives.

And in case you were wondering, here’s an overview of all the digital properties and assets to consider. It’s worth a look since you probably have many of them!

But according to Everplans, “A Digital Executor is a fairly new concept, and so many will and final testament “templates” may not yet include naming a digital executor as a necessary decision. In addition, many states do not yet recognize the legal authority of a Digital Executor, so it’s a good idea to speak with a local estate attorney about the laws in your state.” And that just goes for the US currently.

Planning for your digital afterlife is just another area where legislation is failing to keep pace with the changing dynamics of technology and it’s far reaching effects.

Carrie Arnold, from AARP explains,

“While probate courts have established procedures to distribute physical items, only a handful of states have laws governing the management — and inheritance — of online property. Unless you make specific plans for your digital afterlife, experts say, your “digital assets” stand a good chance of being mismanaged — or of disappearing entirely.”

And, unfortunately, giving others access to things to you don’t actually own, but only have a license to use, is where things get a bit trickier, and is more mandated by law.

The law of virtual property is still very much governed by the way we deal with physical assets.

So when you are given the right to download something, like music or an e-book, you don’t technically have the ownership of the files, but merely the license to use it, and once you die so does the right for anyone else to use it in your place.

Bernard Marr of Forbes acknowledges a few problems in the article What Really Happens To Your (Big) Data After You Die?

“At least here the answer to the question of what happens to it when we die is relatively straightforward – if not exactly satisfying. Generally, according to the terms and conditions, you’re not buying the media itself, but merely a licence to use it. And unfortunately that licence, being essentially an agreement between two parties, dies when you do. If the media is stored as unencrypted data on a local machine which your beneficiaries have access to, they may be able to take physical possession of your beloved record or movie collection after you die, but legally speaking it will be pirated material. More often these days, even media content we “own” (in reality, licence) is stored, encrypted, on cloud services, which our beloved will have no right to access after we die.

Less straightforward is what happens to the data which we aren’t likely to have physical ownership of, or in some cases even know exists. Personal data belongs to us – we can give permission to others (usually businesses) to use and store it, and businesses have a legal obligation to tell us if they are collecting it. But legal frameworks in place generally give us the power to rescind that permission or alter the terms with which it is given. A dead person, obviously, can’t do this – he or she can’t tell Google or Apple to delete the trail of GPS data which, in theory, could allow a third party to know intimate, private details about how they spent their time when they were alive. Google is an obvious case. And unlike medical data, there is far less regulation around what is done with the sort of data they collect – emails, GPS, documents and financial information can often be just as personal and private. Google puts no limits on how long it will hang onto this information after someone dies. On top of this there is not even any obvious mechanism to let them know that the data they have belongs to a dead person – so will presumably continue to handle it in exactly the same way they did when it’s owner was alive.”

In terms of the things in which you do own, like photos, domains and things like this, it would be easiest if you were to make a master password list, and hide it securely and tell someone you trust. Evan Carroll, author of Your Digital Afterlife says that, “If you want your heirs to be able to access your digital photos after you’re gone, download your favorites and save a copy to your hard drive. This will make it easier for your most treasured images to stay in the family. Also, your loved ones won’t have to sort through thousands of images after your death.”

It should also be noted that even those digital photos will become more difficult to preserve as time goes on and formats become obsolete. Nothing lasts forever, so you might as well resort to printing some of those tried-and-true analog photos. *shrug*


Facebook is becoming a vast memorial site as thousands are estimated to die on the social media site everyday, Jaweed Kaleem explains in his post, Death On Facebook Now Common As ‘Dead Profiles’ Create Vast Virtual Cemetery, that by the end of this year, 3 million Facebook users’ pages will have become memorial sites for their owners, according to calculations by Nate Lustig, the founder of Entrustet, an online company that helps people access and delete online accounts after someone dies. Lustig arrived at the number by culling data on the total number of Facebook users, their ages and geographic distribution, and international death rates. It’s estimated that 30 million(!) people’s virtual profiles on Facebook have outlived them.

But peculiarly, Facebook doesn’t seem to be concerned with paving the way for the rites and customs of online death. Especially since the news of someone’s death is typically informed and spread by social media, and that goes for hearing about the passing of your distant cousin George all the way to public figures like David Bowie. We see life markers and events like marriage and babies, but not really for anything as concrete as death.

Kaleem describes:

“News of death used to spread through phone calls, and before that, letters and house calls. The departed were publicly remembered via memorials on street corners, newspaper obituaries and flowers at grave sites. To some degree, this is still the case. But increasingly, the announcements and subsequent mourning occur on social media. Facebook, with 1 billion detailed, self-submitted user profiles, was created to connect the living. But it has become the world’s largest site of memorials for the dead.”

It turns out that the social media which connected the majority of us while we’re alive, ends up becoming the biggest shadow that remains after our death.

You get the option to memorialize the page of the person who died if you are a family or friend, but you don’t get any access to their activities while they were alive (perhaps that’s a good thing). As a user, you also have to option to “self-destruct” your profile in the event of your own death, that is, if your family is willing to submit proof to the company in the form of a scanned death certificate.

But maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, I don’t have a facebook (anymore), this doesn’t apply to me.” Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to tie up all the loose ends of yourself drifting around the ether of the web. Bernard Marr of Forbes says that, “Google, at least, does offer an Inactive Account Manager service, which allows you to designate someone who will receive an email if your account isn’t logged into for a certain time. That person can be given permission to download your photographs, documents and emails stored on their server, and the account can also told to self-delete. However, even when a living user opts to delete their account, Google has never been able to guarantee that personal data is completely removed from their systems. It may well still exist in some form, either anonymized and amalgamated with other datasets, or more or less intact, in backups.”

It would be a little overwhelming to be able track it all down, and to make sure you’ve looked in all the distant corners of the web, because there’s not really an existing solution for such high-level internet sleuthing. And taking up the task is probably not on many people’s to-do lists.

Lingering and Prolonged Grief

The ability to keep the memory of a person somewhat intact, albeit virtual, does bring up important questions we have about death in the modern age and the appropriate amount of time someone is supposed to grieve or adjust to a loss. Just like when we encounter an emotional break-up we certainly don’t want to keep the other person’s internet presence in our daily lives, and we know it’s bad for our psychology. It prevents us from moving on. Would you be happy to keep someone’s lingering profile around in perpetuity, so you could visit it as much as you liked? Maybe you’d even continue to send them messages. It would be like keeping the room of a deceased person intact; a preserved bubble serving as a comfort in order to imagine that the person is still alive somewhere in a strange kind of way. Would it be a natural way to grieve online, or would you get stuck in a timeless loop of the past? Some might even argue that Facebooking the dead could be a new aspect of denial in the stages of grief.

Screenshots from a Black Mirror episode, where the possibility of digitally reconstructing your deceased loved one from their data trail is just the click of a button.

The ultimate point here is that we are still pretty confused about the idea of what to do online after someone dies. There’s no real online cultural habit of what kind of actions should be taken in these circumstances. Facebook is currently only addressing the issue out of necessity, but is by no means one of it’s priorities.

The odds are, your online profile will outlive you. And those echoes of your networked self will live on in a new kind of temperature-controlled mausoleum, the one that houses servers instead of skeletons.

If you do nothing else, record all passwords so your executor or someone else you designate can manage or close your accounts after your death. Store the list in a mutually agreed and secure place. Don’t put passwords in your will, though, because that becomes a public document. Consider it an act of love for those you leave behind to be able to sort through your online life or to unlock your digital assets without a harrowing effort.



Perception and reality at the intersections of art, science and technology.

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