What happens to your digital data when you die?

What can we do to keep control of our data after we’re gone? Social media is turning into a giant graveyard and ‘Digital Death’ is one of the biggest challenges facing the tech community.

Several ethical and logistical problems arise when a loved one dies, including should their social media sites be preserved or shut down and crucially, where exactly does all their personal data go?

Psychologist and author Dr Elaine Kasket from London’s Regent’s University has explored the fact that the control of our personal data by the big technology companies  doesn’t diminish when we die. She says they are “stewarding the data” of our loved ones as they see fit and in a way that’s most economically favourable to them.

This week, she publishes her book, All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. In her book, she explores the issues of data, digital privacy and death. She delves deep into the subject and looks at whether we can even start asking these questions in any depth whilst big tech has its claws dug deep into every aspect of our lives.

Digital Graveyard

There are now over 30 million dead people on Facebook and some even suggest that between 2020 and 2060 there could be more profiles of dead people than living on the social media site.

Dr Kasket says: “There is perhaps no better illustration of the extent to which Big Tech (Google Apple Facebook Amazon) ‘owns’ us, and the extent to which we have lost control over our personal information, than observing what happens to our data when we die.”

The former counselling psychologist turned lecturer added : “Any sort of law or regulation from the pre-digital age struggles to cope with digital ‘stuff’. That includes laws of succession, which govern what we can and can’t leave to others in our will. Bad decisions are already being made by legal minds that don’t fully grasp understand the differences between the material and digital context”.

What can you do with your profile?

Most people take the ‘I’ll be dead so don’t care’ attitude. But this could cause heartache for the loved ones left behind. Facebook now turns profile pages into ‘memorial’ pages, if a request is made by loved ones after a death.

But this can still cause problems if relatives inadvertently post messages which can then look as if the deceased is writing comments from beyond the grave.

A spokeswoman for the Data Support Agency said: “The ICO state that Information about a deceased person does not constitute personal data and therefore is not subject to the GDPR”. While this may be valuable for research purposes, in particular medical research, if using data that identifies the person is valuable, it raises concerns about the protection and potential exploitation of personal details following a person’s death. We would recommend that good data protection practice would be to maintain confidentiality following a person’s death.”

Find out more about All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. 

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