What happens to your personal data when you die is something that had never occurred to me until I read an article about it this week. Questions like, where do all my public Facebook photos and tweets end up when I’m no longer alive? What about the private emails, text messages, and audio files? What about my address book? Can someone sell it after I’m dead? Should my will contain some phraseology that covers my data? I also realized that my generation, now in their seventies, is probably the first generation that has encountered this problem.
“The rule of thumb is that you own your personal data; it’s your property, basically,” states Carl Öhman, an associate senior lecturer with the department of government at Sweden’s Uppsala University. “But you co-own it with whatever platform you’re uploading into. So Facebook would be a great example. You do own all the personal data that you post on Facebook, but Facebook also owns that data.”
Now that’s worrying in of itself, regardless of the legal consequences of joint ownership when you are dead. I would suspect that, if true, that actually means I don’t own my own data.
In 2019, a research paper published by Öhman in the journal Big Data & Society, estimated that by the year 2100, there would be a minimum of 1.4 billion dead Facebook users (An interesting statistic!!). This figure assumed the platform would cease to attract new users after 2018, when he performed his analysis. If the network continues to expand at its current pace, there could be in excess of 4.9 billion profiles for deceased persons by that time, he says. With that kind of scale, the topic of post-mortem personal data goes beyond the moral, ethical, and legal considerations of the individual, and becomes a conversation about society as a whole.
“What you’re holding is essentially a perfect record of the past, the biggest archive of human behavior ever assembled by our species,” Öhman says. “So what happens to our digital remains is not just an ethical matter of ‘who do I want to have access to my pictures on Instagram,’ but it’s very much a political discussion of who should be able to control our collective narratives of the digital past.”
It’s in the tech companies’ best interests to have moral constraint, and not do anything particularly creepy with that data, Öhman says, because consumers care about the dead. So firms like Microsoft don’t have the incentive to create virtual avatars or chatbots of your deceased loved ones without permission, even though they already have the capabilities and patents to do so.
Still, there is a commercial interest in maintaining those profiles, because your personal data is analogous to your physical human remains, says Öhman. “Kind of like we care about cemeteries, and we care about the lands and the soil in which our ancestors are buried, we will also start caring about the longevity of, well, a platform like Facebook,” he says. “Let’s say that they go bust, or get shut down by some outraged politician. I bet a lot of people would actually be very upset that their loved ones’ personal data would be lost.”
That leads us to a slightly problematic twist: In Western society, only living subjects can legitimately hold property, Öhman explains. That means when you die, the company that stores your “digital remains” on its servers becomes the sole owner. If all of Google’s existing data centers were to be filled to the brim with personal data on dead people, for instance, the company might decide to start keeping only the social media profiles and emails of dead celebrities or world leaders that it can profit from in some way. In that case, if you wanted to retrieve family photos from your dearly departed partner’s account, you might be out of luck.
So if you’d like to be proactive and designate how your personal data may or may not be used in the future—and who controls it—you have to take action now. Here are a few steps you can take, according to NordVPN, an internet privacy company with servers in 60 countries:
- Use Google’s Inactive Account Manager, which notifies a trusted contact when your account has been inactive for a certain period of time.
- Appoint a digital executor in your will to handle all of your digital property.
- Leave your passwords to someone you trust, so they can retrieve any meaningful data, like family photos.
- Set up a “legacy contact” on Facebook so you can control who will manage your account when you die.
- If there are things you really don’t want others to see, protect them with a file encryption manager.
As I said at the beginning of this blog, such a problem had never crossed my mind before. Now that it has, I wanted to share this new societal concern with as many people as possible.
This also opens up a whole new field of legal opportunities, which means even more lawyers that we have already. Just what we need.