What happens to our data after we die? Two specialists propose different scenarios.
Now, we don’t leave even when we die because deceased people’s digital footprints remain in the digital world. However, this lends itself to contrasting points of view and legal issues.
Facebook and iTunes are two significant cases with dissimilar policies regarding the handling of users’ content after they have died.
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Marta Sylvia del Río Guerra, a human-computer interaction specialist, talked about this in “Café Científico”, a virtual forum organized by Tecnológico de Monterrey for the dissemination of science, based on a real event that happened in her family.
“In 2013, my sister was killed in a robbery and her Facebook account remained. One of my brothers (who had the password) decided not to close it. So, we began to use that account to remember her with messages every year on her birthday, or on the anniversary of her death.”
A couple of years ago, Facebook’s algorithm detected that this account belonged to a deceased person. So, the social network changed it into a memorialized account, a special format for users who have unfortunately passed away.
“The deceased person will no longer be able to post on this account, but they can receive messages from others,” explained del Río, who is also a professor at the University of Monterrey (UDEM).
This way, the virtual presence of the deceased is prolonged for as long as their relatives want.
It’s important to mention that Facebook is in danger of becoming a digital graveyard. According to a study by the Oxford Internet Institute in England, it’s estimated that this social network will have 4.9 billion deceased user profiles by the end of the century. So, the dead could outnumber the living.
The case of iTunes is different, in that only one user in the world can pass on the music they’ve acquired on this platform after their death. And that one user is American actor Bruce Willis.
It just so happens that after buying thousands of songs on iTunes, Willis realized a few years ago that he couldn’t share them with the iTunes libraries of his daughters Rumer, Scout, and Tallulah, much less hand them down.
“Bruce Willis, at the time of making his will, wanted to pass on all the music he had on iTunes to his daughters, because it was worth millions of dollars. Apple told him that he couldn’t pass them on, but he said he had the right to do so. Eventually, there was a lawsuit that Bruce Willis won,” said this professor.
That’s how Willis became the only user in the world who can pass on his iTunes songs after death, because since that fight in court, Apple (the company that owns this music platform) changed its terms and conditions so that no other user could follow in the actor’s footsteps.
“So, only Bruce Willis can leave his songs behind. All the rest of us, the moment we die, are going to lose our music,” warned del Rio.
She also said that, after her death, she would like all the photos she has on Google Drive to be kept by her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.
Which is why, despite the fine print of the terms and conditions of this service, she’s already decided to share her passwords with her offspring, so that when the time comes, they can extract all the images and keep them as an inheritance.
According to this academic, this plan should also be applied to other digital platforms such as emails and digital cloud storage services.
That way, legal problems are less likely to arise in the event that relatives don’t know the deceased person’s passwords.
On the topic, Luis Carlos Aceves, the founder of Aprende UX, a company that designs digital user experiences, said during a virtual talk that a considerable part of our lives is currently somewhere on the internet.
“We don’t know where that place is, but we’re not worried about it. We just assume it’s there,” said this expert, who is also a UDEM academic.
To this end, Aceves called on the public to take into account what type of information they have stored on digital platforms, so that they actually have a strategy planned for what will happen to that information after they die.
“This is tough because it’s about designing an experience based on dying. When I talk about this, people get scared, but it’s a reality,” he concluded.