A recent extension to the cultural relationship with death is the increasing number of people who die having created a large amount of digital content, such as social media profiles, that will remain after death.

This may result in concern and confusion, because of automated features of dormant accounts, the uncertainty of the deceased’s preferences that profiles be deleted or left as a memorial, and whether information that may violate the deceased’s privacy should be made accessible to the family.

Issues with how this information is sensitively dealt with are further complicated as it may belong to the service provider and many do not have clear policies on what happens to the accounts of deceased users.

Data privacy laws like the GDPR and the right to be forgotten give citizens of certain countries the power to scrub their personal information from the internet if they wish and hold tech companies accountable if they don’t adhere to specific safeguards when processing it.

While some sites, including Facebook and Twitter, have policies related to death, others remain dormant until deleted due to inactivity or transferred to family or friends. The FADA (Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act) was set in place to make it possible to transfer digital possessions legally.

There are lots of good reasons for wanting to get an understanding of what happens to our data after we die. You might want to ensure private information remains private after your passing on, or perhaps make it possible for those left behind to benefit from digital assets with value, either tangible or sentimental. But unfortunately, the situation is somewhat muddled and confused – mainly because, as in many other areas, legislation has failed to keep pace with technological change.

Here’s how major tech giants handle our data when we die...

Facebook

In the early days Facebook used to delete profiles of dead people. In October 2009, the company introduced “memorial pages” in response to multiple user requests related to the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. After receiving a proof of death via a special form, the profile would be converted into a tribute page with minimal personal details, where friends and family members could share their grief.

By 2100 there could be 4.9bn dead users on Facebook. So who controls our digital legacy after we have gone?

In February 2015, Facebook allowed users to appoint a friend or family member as a “legacy contact” with the rights to manage their page after death. It also gave Facebook users an option to have their account permanently deleted when they die.

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Social media networks have also been criticized for not responding to relatives’ requests to alter information on memorialized accounts. Another criticism is that Facebook users often are unaware that their content is ultimately owned not by them, but by Facebook.

Google

In April 2013, Google announced the creation of the ‘Inactive Account Manager’, which allows users of Google services to set up a process in which ownership and control of inactive accounts is transferred to a delegated user.

Google also allows users to submit a range of requests regarding accounts belonging to deceased users. Google works with immediate family members and representatives to close online accounts in some cases once a user is known to be deceased, and in certain circumstances may also provide content from a deceased user’s account.

Twitter

Until 2010, Twitter did not have a policy on handling deceased user accounts, and simply deleted timelines of deceased users.

In August 2010, Twitter allowed memorialization of accounts upon request from family members, and also provided them with an option of either deleting the account or obtaining a permanent backup of the deceased user’s public tweets.

As of January 2019, the only option that Twitter offered for the accounts of dead people was account deactivation. Previously published content is not removed.

To deactivate an account Twitter requires an immediate family member to present a copy of their ID and a death certificate of the deceased. Twitter specified that it does not provide account access to anyone,  but does allow people having account login information to continue posting. A prominent example is Roger Ebert’s account maintained by his wife Chaz.

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Digital Inheritance

Digital inheritance is the process of handing over personal digital assets to human beneficiaries. These digital assets include digital estates and the right to use them. It may include bank accounts, writings, photographs, and social interactions.

There are several services which store account passwords and send them to selected individuals after death. Some of these periodically send the customer an email to confirm that that person is still alive; after failure to respond to multiple emails, the service provider assumes that the person has died and will thereafter distribute the passwords as arranged.

The Data Inheritance function from SecureSafe gives an “activator code” that the customer transfers to a trusted individual, and in the event of death that individual enters the code into Secure Safe’s system to get access to the deceased person’s digital inheritance.

If you are concern about your privacy after you die, 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.