Digital Afterlife: What Happens to Our Digital Data After We Die?

Digital Afterlife: What Happens to Our Digital Data After We Die?

Let’s face it; nobody cherishes pondering about the inevitable: our departure from this earthly realm. However, deciding what will become of our physical possessions post-mortem is essential. The question is, do we lend the same gravity of thought to our digital footprints? Not quite, but this is set to change.

As we tread deeper into the digital era, our data generation capacity is increasing exponentially. This data is not just our deliberate digital contribution through social media posts or emails but is also collected by our smartphones, cameras, and other IoT devices that simplify our lives.

Our combined digital existence is precious for marketing information for major tech corporations. This data propels the creation and delivery of personalized advertisements, each finely tailored to our individual preferences as deciphered by advanced psychographic profiling algorithms. However, the fate of these digital identities, after we pass away, remains uncertain.

Should our digital assets be strictly retained within the confines of corporate control? Or should you add it to your willjust like you would add your physical assets? 

“When it comes to end-of-life planning and their estate, I believe most people don’t even think about their digital footprint.”
— Tim Bajarin, Creative Strategies, San Jose, California

Grasping the trajectory of your data after death isn’t merely a philosophical concern; it’s practical too. Perhaps you desire to safeguard your privacy after your death, or you want your heirs to benefit from your valuable digital assets, be they sentimental or financial. Regrettably, the waters are muddled – mainly because the legislative machinery hasn’t caught up with technology’s sprint.

Let’s take a commonplace digital asset, such as digital media from iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play. Today, we are more inclined to buy these digital assets than their physical counterparts. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, the average UK consumer-owned assets are collectively valued at £25 billion ($31 billion). 

So what happens to our digital data after we die?

Shockingly, the fate of these digital collections after our demise is relatively simple yet unsatisfying. The fine print in terms and conditions suggests that we are buying not the media itself but a license to use it. This license, an agreement between two parties, expires when you do.

The legality of your digital content stored unencrypted on a local machine, which your heirs can access, becomes contentious after your passing. This data, while physically accessible, transforms into legally pirated content. The situation gets trickier for encrypted data stored on cloud services, which your loved ones cannot access after you.

The conversation takes a turn for the obscure when discussing data that we do not physically own or, in some cases, aren’t even aware of. Personal data, which is rightfully ours, is often collected and stored by businesses with our consent. However, once we’re gone, our ability to revoke that permission disappears, leaving our data vulnerable.

Medical data is relatively well-regulated. Usually, it’s stored for a decade in the UK before it’s destroyed, with access restrictions placed posthumously. However, the regulations are far less stringent for personal data collected by private companies like Google. There is no limit on the retention period of this data after death and no straightforward way to notify them about the deceased data owner.

What Happens to Your Social Media Accounts After You Pass Away? 

Thinking about a time when you won’t be around to update your Facebook status or post your latest selfie isn’t pleasant, but it’s a reality we must confront. Acknowledging this, Facebook offers its users two options: assigning a legacy contact to manage their memorialized account or permanently erasing it. If you’re over 18, you can appoint a trusted friend from your friend list as your Facebook legacy contact. 

This person will either manage your memorialized profile or can decide to remove it. They can also download shared content from the account, demonstrating they are an authorized representative. For those not appointed as legacy contacts, Facebook provides guidelines on deleting a deceased person’s account. This process requires proof of the individual’s death, such as an obituary or memorial card, and evidence of authority, like a will, birth certificate, power of attorney, or estate letter. 

Unless you delete your account, it will be memorialized if Facebook is informed of your death. Memorialized Facebook profiles are marked with “Remembering” beside the person’s name and continue to showcase their posts and photos. These accounts are spared from birthday reminders and friend suggestions; no one, including the legacy contact, can log into them. The legacy contact has some capabilities, though. They can pin a post to the memorialized profile, change the profile and cover photos, manage who can add tributes to the profile, and decide who can view them. 

Instagram, a Meta-owned platform like Facebook, offers comparable options: memorialization or deletion of the account upon receiving a valid request. To request a removal, you must prove that you are an immediate family member or an authorized representative of the deceased.

Memorial Instagram accounts also carry a “Remembering” label next to the user’s name and do not appear on the Explore page. No modifications can be made to the posts, comments, profile photos, followers, or accounts followed by the memorialized account.

As per Twitter’s policy, they can work with someone authorized to act on behalf of the estate or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to deactivate an account. To initiate this, you need to present your relationship with the deceased and, to avoid false reports, Twitter asks for a copy of the death certificate and your identification.”

Google’s Inactive Account Manager service does allow you to assign someone to receive an email if your account remains inactive for a specific period. This person can download your photos, documents, and emails, and the account can be set to self-delete. However, Google has never guaranteed complete data removal from their systems post-account deletion. Your data could still exist in their backups, anonymized, or amalgamated with other datasets.

So, while we may feel powerless over our data after death, it is, after all, our digital footprint, and it’s incumbent on us to ensure it’s treated in line with our wishes.

A straightforward approach is to include digital assets in your will. Like physical assets, digital properties can be bequeathed if we own them or deleted if we wish to maintain eternal privacy. The future might witness changes in legislation about post-death data, especially those stored by third-party companies.

Imagine a future historian using our data to reconstruct the past in extraordinary detail, thanks to wearable technology, autonomous vehicles, and a burgeoning number of surveillance cameras. Analyzing our recorded conversations and social media interactions might even allow for digital “reconstructions” of us long after we’re gone.

What would they discover about us? Do we have the right to withhold our data’s latent insights from future generations? These questions demand consideration before any legislative progress on post-death data use.

So, it’s time to think about our data protection after death and how we can protect our digital properties. Understanding our digital footprint and privacy is crucial, as leaving a digital footprint means dealing with your digital footprint after death. Get a personal data form, comprehend your digital property rights, and determine how you can control your online accounts after death. Let’s ensure our digital afterlife is as well-planned as our physical one.