How Your Death Affects Your Privacy
By Bree Brouwer
Speaker and psychologist Elaine Kasket is a longtime scholar of death in the digital age.
Her recent book — “All the Ghosts in the Machine: The Digital Afterlife of Your Personal Data” — addresses modern privacy challenges from birth to beyond death.
Kasket told Digital Privacy News that privacy proponents should know everything possible about their digital afterlife and how to manage it.
What is a digital afterlife?
It’s the unique digital footprint that pretty-much every internet user has created through active and passive data traces.
It includes not just social media, but also all of your messages on all of your apps and email.
It’s stuff you might be storing digitally on devices at home. It’s the stuff you have in cloud accounts, your search history, your list of websites visited — and more.
This data that makes up your unique digital footprint doesn’t just disappear automatically when you physically die. Your digital shadow carries on.
Why is privacy after death relevant to anyone? How does it affect more than just your own life and estate?
It comes down to how your death impacts your family and their experience. In the short term, data provides a continuing bond with the people you knew and loved.
That can be helpful in grief, although it is contextual — because it depends on how the loved ones feel about that digital footprint.
It could be exposing negatively the dignity or privacy of their forebearer.
It’s also good when we have access to information about our histories personally, socially and culturally.
When we don’t remember our history, we feel unmoored or struggle with individual meaning-making.
What problems arise when your data is left behind?
If a person’s digital material is left in unclosed or unfrozen accounts, that’s vulnerable and hackable. This can also affect intellectual property.
For example, if your family or husband or next of kin would be able to read everything you’d ever written — including something you never intended anybody to see — how does that impinge upon your freedom to express yourself in life?
It’s also about the fact that there’s a perceived impingement on privacy or dignity, including the privacy of all of the people that still remain connected to the dead through all of the social networks.
Even memorialized Facebook profiles can be cloned, for example.
What happens when people think they own their data? How does this affect the digital afterlife?
People don’t understand just how fundamentally their data is owned and controlled and sold and exploited and used in various kinds of ways.
For example, Facebook has financial incentives for retaining control over deceased data. They can use it to train new models. They can mine it for market insights.
I don’t think we should be outsourcing responsibility for individual or collective memories to platforms that never set out to fulfill these functions in the first place.
Should people start thinking about their digital afterlives because of COVID-19?
COVID has shown nobody’s immune.
People have brought together the increasing awareness or familiarity with death with this visceral “this could be you and this could be your family.”
It’s, helpfully, disrupting people’s assumptions — and, hopefully, they’re thinking a lot more about their data.
For example, a lot of people haven’t thought about their wills or haven’t nominated account managers or executors.
It’s such a lens into how much control you’re giving away and just how many assumptions you’re making about your rights over your data.
My biggest advice is to transform your sentimental and practical information into something locally accessible that won’t rely on some big company to grant somebody else access to.
Otherwise, all bets are off.
Bree Brouwer is a writer based in Phoenix.