What happens to our online identities when we die?

What happens to our online identities when we die?

What happens to our online identities when we die?

Click here to view original web page at What happens to our online identities when we die?

Hayley Atwell in the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back.

Esther Earl never meant to tweet after she died. On 25 August 2010, the 16-year-old internet vlogger died after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. In her early teens, Esther had gained a loyal following online, where she posted about her love of Harry Potter, and her illness. Then, on 18 February 2011 – six months after her death – Esther posted a message on her Twitter account, @crazycrayon.

“It’s currently Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts,” she wrote, adding an emoji of a smiling face in sunglasses. Her mother, Lori Earl from Massachusetts, tells me Esther’s online friends were “freaked out” by the tweet.

“I’d say they found her tweet jarring because it was unexpected,” she says. Earl doesn’t know which service her daughter used to schedule the tweet a year in advance, but believes it was intended for herself, not for loved ones after her death. “She hoped she would receive her own messages … [it showed] her hopes and longings to still be living, to hold on to life.”

Although Esther did not intend her tweet to be a posthumous message for her family, a host of services now encourage people to plan their online afterlives. Want to post on social media and communicate with your friends after death? There are lots of apps for that! Replika and Eternime are artificially intelligent chatbots that can imitate your speech for loved ones after you die; GoneNotGone enables you to send emails from the grave; and DeadSocial’s “goodbye tool” allows you to “tell your friends and family that you have died”. In season two, episode one of Black Mirror, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence – what was once the subject of a dystopian 44-minute fantasy is nearing reality.

Esther Earl at home in 2010 … before she died, she arranged for emails to be sent to her imagined future self.
Esther Earl at home in 2010 … before she died, she arranged for emails to be sent to her imagined future self. Photograph: Boston Globe via Getty Images

But although Charlie Brooker portrayed the digital afterlife as something twisted, in reality online legacies can be comforting for the bereaved. Esther Earl used a service called FutureMe to send emails to herself, stating that her parents should read them if she died. Three months after Esther’s death, her mother received one of these emails. “They were seismically powerful,” she says. “That letter made us weep, but also brought us great comfort – I think because of its intentionality, the fact that she was thinking about her future, the clarity with which she accepted who she was and who she hoped to become.”

Because of the power of Esther’s messages, Earl knows that if she were dying, she would also schedule emails for her husband and children. “I think I would be very clear about how many messages I had written and when to expect them,” she adds, noting they could cause anxiety for relatives and friends otherwise.

Yet while the terminally ill ponder their digital legacies, the majority of us do not. In November 2018, a YouGov survey found that only 7% of people want their social media accounts to remain online after they die, yet it is estimated that by 2100, there could be 4.9bn dead users on Facebook alone. Planning your digital death is not really about scheduling status updates for loved ones or building an AI avatar. In practice, it is a series of unglamorous decisions about deleting your Facebook, Twitter and Netflix accounts; protecting your email against hackers; bestowing your music library to your friends; allowing your family to download photos from your cloud; and ensuring that your online secrets remain hidden in their digital alcoves.

In Be Right Back, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence.
In Be Right Back, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence. Photograph: Channel 4

“We should think really carefully about anything we’re entrusting or storing on any digital platform,” says Dr Elaine Kasket, a psychologist and author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. “If our digital stuff were like our material stuff, we would all look like extreme hoarders.” Kasket says it is naive to assume that our online lives die with us. In practice, your hoard of digital data can cause endless complications for loved ones, particularly when they don’t have access to your passwords.

“I cursed my father every step of the way,” says Richard, a 34-year-old engineer from Ontario who was made executor of his father’s estate four years ago. Although Richard’s father left him a list of passwords, not one remained valid by the time of his death. Richard couldn’t access his father’s online government accounts, his email (to inform his contacts about the funeral), or even log on to his computer. For privacy reasons, Microsoft refused to help Richard access his father’s computer. “Because of that experience I will never call Microsoft again,” he says.

Our devices capture so much stuff, we don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here

Compare this with the experience of Jan-Ole Lincke, a 24-year-old pharmaceutical worker from Hamburg whose father left up-to-date passwords behind on a sheet of paper when he died two years ago. “Getting access was thankfully very easy,” says Lincke, who was able to download pictures from his father’s Google profile, shut down his email to prevent hacking, and delete credit card details from his Amazon account. “It definitely made me think about my own [digital legacy],” says Lincke, who has now written his passwords down.

Yet despite growing awareness about the data we leave behind, very few of us are doing anything about it. In 2013, a Brighton-based company called Cirrus Legacy made headlines after it began allowing people to securely leave behind passwords for a nominated loved one. Yet the Cirrus website is now defunct, and the Guardian was unable to reach its founder for comment. Clarkson Wright & Jakes Solicitors, a Kent-based law firm that offered the Cirrus service to its clients, says the option was never popular.

“We’ve been aware for quite a period now that the big issue for the next generation is digital footprints,” says Jeremy Wilson, head of the wills and estates team at CWJ. “Cirrus made sense and ticked a lot of boxes but, to be honest, not one client has taken us up on it.”

Wilson also notes that people don’t know about the laws surrounding digital assets such as the music, movies and games they have downloaded. While many of us assume we own our iTunes library or collection of PlayStation games, in fact, most digital downloads are only licensed to us, and this licence ends when we die.

What we want to do and what the law allows us to do with our digital legacy can therefore be very different things. Yet at present it is not the law that dominates our decisions about digital death. “Regulation is always really slow to keep up with technology,” says Kasket. “That means that platforms and corporations like Facebook end up writing the rules.”

Andrew Scott stars in the new Black Mirror episode Smithereens, which explores our digital dependency.
Andrew Scott stars in the new Black Mirror episode Smithereens, which explores our digital dependency. Photograph: Netflix / Black Mirror

In 2012, a 15-year-old German girl died after being hit by a subway train in Berlin. Although the girl had given her parents her online passwords, they were unable to access her Facebook account because it had been “memorialised” by the social network. Since October 2009, Facebook has allowed profiles to be transformed into “memorial pages” that exist in perpetuity. No one can then log into the account or update it, and it remains frozen as a place for loved ones to share their grief.

The girl’s parents sued Facebook for access to her account – they hoped to use it to determine whether her death was suicide. They originally lost the case, although a German court later granted the parents permission to get into her account, six years after her death.

“I find it concerning that any big tech company that hasn’t really shown itself to be the most honest, transparent or ethical organisation is writing the rulebook for how we should grieve, and making moral judgments about who should or shouldn’t have access to sensitive personal data,” says Kasket. The author is concerned with how Facebook uses the data of the dead for profit, arguing that living users keep their Facebook accounts because they don’t want to be “locked out of the cemetery” and lose access to relatives’ memorialised pages. As a psychologist, she is also concerned that Facebook is dictating our grief.

“Facebook created memorial profiles to prevent what they called ‘pain points’, like getting birthday reminders for a deceased person,” she says. “But one of the mothers I spoke to for my book was upset when her daughter’s profile was memorialised and she stopped getting these reminders. She was like, ‘This is my daughter, I gave birth to her, it’s still her birthday’.”

While Facebook users now have the option to appoint a “legacy contact” who can manage or delete their profile after death, Kasket is concerned that there are very few personalisation options when it comes to things like birthday reminders, or whether strangers can post on your wall. “The individuality and the idiosyncrasy of grief will flummox Facebook every time in its attempts to find a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says.

Pain points … should we allow loved ones to curate our legacy, or create ‘memorial pages’?
Pain points … should we allow loved ones to curate our legacy, or create ‘memorial pages’? Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Matthew Helm, a 27-year-old technical analyst from Minnesota, says his mother’s Facebook profile compounded his grief after she died four years ago. “The first year was the most difficult,” says Helm, who felt some relatives posted about their grief on his mother’s wall in order to get attention. “In the beginning I definitely wished I could just wipe it all.” Helm hoped to delete the profile but was unable to access his mother’s account. He did not ask the tech giant to delete the profile because he didn’t want to give it his mother’s death certificate.

Conversely, Stephanie Nimmo, a 50-year-old writer from Wimbledon, embraced the chance to become her husband’s legacy contact after he died of bowel cancer in December 2015. “My husband and I shared a lot of information on Facebook. It almost became a bit of an online diary,” she says. “I didn’t want to lose that.” She is pleased people continue to post on her husband’s wall, and enjoys tagging him in posts about their children’s achievements. “I’m not being maudlin or creating a shrine, just acknowledging that their dad lived and he played a role in their lives,” she explains.

Nimmo is now passionate about encouraging people to plan their digital legacies. Her husband also left her passwords for his Reddit, Twitter, Google and online banking accounts. He also deleted Facebook messages he didn’t want his wife to see. “Even in a marriage there are certain things you wouldn’t want your other half to see because it’s private,” says Nimmo. “It worries me a little that if something happened to me, there are things I wouldn’t want my kids to see.”

When it comes to the choice between allowing relatives access to your accounts or letting a social media corporation use your data indefinitely after your death, privacy is a fundamental issue. Although the former makes us sweat, the latter is arguably more dystopian. Dr Edina Harbinja is a law lecturer at Aston University, who argues that we should all legally be entitled to postmortem privacy.

If we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us

“The deceased should have the right to control what happens to their personal data and online identities when they die,” she says, explaining that the Data Protection Act 2018 defines “personal data” as relating only to living people. Harbinja says this is problematic because rules such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation don’t apply to the dead, and because there are no provisions that allow us to pass on our online data in wills. “There can be many issues because we don’t know what would happen if someone is a legacy contact on Facebook, but the next of kin want access.” For example, if you decide you want your friend to delete your Facebook pictures after you die, your husband could legally challenge this. “There could be potential court cases.”

Kasket says people “don’t realise how much preparation they need to do in order to make plans that are actually able to be carried out”. It is clear that if we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us. “What one person craves is what another person is horrified about,” says Kasket.

How close are we to a Black Mirror-style digital afterlife?

Read more

Esther Earl continued to tweet for another year after her death. Automated posts from the music website Last.fm updated her followers about the music she enjoyed. There is no way to predict the problems we will leave online when we die; Lori Earl would never have thought of revoking Last.fm’s permissions to post on her daughter’s page before she died. “We would have turned off the posts if we had been able to,” she says.

Kasket says “the fundamental message” is to think about how much you store digitally. “Our devices, without us even having to try, capture so much stuff,” she says. “We don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here any more.”

• Black Mirror season 5 launches on Netflix on 5 June.

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I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone.

I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone.

I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone.

Click here to view original web page at I Needed to Save My Mother’s Memories. I Hacked Her Phone.

Claire Merchlinsky

Several days after my mother died in a car accident, my two sisters and I sat together in her apartment, stunned and overwhelmed. High on our horrible to-do list — along with retrieving her smashed vehicle from the tow lot, making burial plans and meeting with the rabbi — was this: getting into her cellphone.

Everything we needed to get her affairs in order was on her phone. Her contacts would tell us who to reach out to about the memorial service. Her email would tell us whether she had made plans we needed to cancel. Her finance apps would tell us whether she had been paying bills electronically. And there would be personal information, too. Her texts to family and friends. Her notepad. Her photos. The e-book she had been reading on the flight home in the hours before the accident as she left the Tulsa International Airport.

Luckily, Mom had given me the passcode to her phone only a month before. When we felt ready, I turned on her iPhone in its pink plastic case and typed in the code.

Nothing.

I typed in the code a second time. Again, nothing. My sisters and I looked at one another. A tightness gripped my stomach as I realized that the code Mom had given me couldn’t possibly work: That code had contained four digits, and her phone was asking for six.

Six digits means one million possible combinations, and her phone would give us only 10 tries before Apple would erase all of her data. Her old passcode had been the last four digits of the phone number at our childhood home, which ended in a zero. We decided to add two zeros to the end and were so confident that we knew how Mom’s brain worked that I paused dramatically before I tapped in the final zero, certain it would work. It did not.

[As technology advances, will it continue to blur the lines between public and private? Sign up for Charlie Warzel’s limited-run newsletter to explore what’s at stake and what you can do about it.]

After that failure, my sisters and I treated every one of the remaining tries like some sort of nuclear access code. We made a few more attempts, none successful. With each failure, the phone made us wait longer between tries. Eventually we decided it was best to stop and find a different way in — the risk of permanently erasing everything was too great.

As a historian and biographer, I’ve made a career of reconstructing lives. To do that, you need information. The people I study and write about are entrepreneurs, innovators, famous and wealthy individuals. Their lives have been well documented in countless ways, including television interviews, newspaper and magazine articles, congressional testimony, patent records and the corporate archives of companies they founded. It’s relatively easy to reconstruct those lives, particularly if there are still friends and colleagues to help fill in the blanks.

Mom left no public record aside from a letter to the editor published in The Tulsa World. Instead, she had a dusty purple plastic bin she labeled “Memorabilia” with a Magic Marker. Inside were a prom program, a love letter from a boyfriend we had never heard of and hundreds of drawings, photos and notes from her grandchildren or us sisters as children. She had the photo albums she had made when we were little. A safe deposit box held her citizenship papers and other legal documents.

Nearly anything from the past 20 years existed only online, locked away behind passwords and firewalls. Notwithstanding the cards she made by gluing New Yorker cartoons onto cardstock, her written communications essentially stopped in the early 2000s, when she got an email account. She was a great texter, pouncing to be the first to respond in any group and embracing emojis with the passion of a preteenager. Her social media posts were politically passionate and at times head-scratchingly random.

I valued these public things, of course, but I also wanted more. We document our lives in two ways, one intended and one not. There are the emails we send, the photos we post and the comments we debate and wordsmith before hitting Return. And then there is the inadvertent record: the enraged first drafts, the unflattering selfies, the record of purchases at Amazon or Netflix, the digital sticky notes we had not meant to keep.

We work hard to curate the public self and rarely think about the shadow self. I knew from my own work, however, that off-the-cuff notes, old receipts, call logs and calendar entries can serve as proxies for feelings. A run of doctor’s appointments, a glut of calls to the same phone number that never picks up, the purchase of five types of acne cream or a self-help book — these are clues. When we are alive and artificial intelligence assembles these clues to hazard an eerily accurate prediction about our interests and future desires, we are horrified. But for a historian looking at the life of someone who has died, the same clues can lead to understanding.

As a daughter, my heart broke at the realization that digital records, along with the stories from those of us who loved Mom, were going to be the best way to be with her again, to learn from her again or to laugh again at her stupid jokes. But as a historian, my mind raced. If the only way to preserve her memories was to put together the pieces of her digital life, then we had to hack into her online accounts.

After a frantic hunt, my middle sister found a small pocket calendar in Mom’s desk. The back pages were filled with handwritten login IDs and passwords. I patted myself on the back for having insisted Mom record her passwords, and we sisters rejoiced … for about five minutes. At site after site, login page after login page, every attempt failed.

The only login and password combination that worked was for her Apple iCloud account, but she had protected it with two-factor authentication. We could see that her phone was receiving texts — texts from Apple containing the codes needed to get into her account — but we couldn’t unlock the phone, so we couldn’t see the code. I called a few high-powered techies I know from working at Stanford and living in Silicon Valley, but none of them could help. It seemed we would be locked out of everything.

Eventually I found a savior — a young employee at an Apple Store. I explained to him that I had Mom’s login ID (an email address) and the password for her Apple account, but I couldn’t override the two-factor authentication. He asked me to enter the login and password, and he grimaced when her locked phone lit up with the authentication code we could not see. Then his expression changed. “Let’s try her SIM card,” he said.

A phone’s SIM card is no bigger than the fingernail on your pinkie finger, but it is of vital importance. It gives your phone its unique identity, making it possible to associate the physical device with a specific mobile carrier and phone number. You can pop the card out of your phone by inserting a paper clip in the tiny hole you might have noticed on the side of your phone. Moving a SIM card from one phone to another is how most people move their phone number when they upgrade their devices.

The employee ejected the SIM card from Mom’s phone and put it in his own. His phone now had her phone number. We logged into Mom’s iCloud account again. This time we clicked the link that said we had not received the original two-factor passcode sent to the phone as a trusted device. We requested another be sent to her phone number. An instant later, his phone buzzed with the code. “O.K. to input this?” he asked. My heart pounded at the thought of this young stranger being with me when I peeked into Mom’s hidden digital life for the first time, but I nodded approval. He typed the code on the site.

Boom: We could see her Apple mail, her memos, her bookmarks and her photos. We had recovered a key to unlock her digital world.

At home, I put Mom’s SIM card into my husband’s phone so that it could receive texts sent to her number. Now, with her login ID and control over her phone number, I could impersonate her. At every website, I said that I forgot her password. The website tried to confirm her identity by texting a code to Mom’s registered phone number — and the code would go straight to my husband’s phone. Once I was logged in, I could then change both the password and the trusted phone number that would thereafter be associated with the account. Every time a page opened up with her name at the top, I felt a mix of elation and nausea.

It took hours, but I gained control of her email accounts, her Amazon account, her cable provider and the sites for her credit cards. We never did figure out the passcode to her phone, which means I will most likely never see the iMessages or other encrypted information. Otherwise, I now have access to almost all of her digital history.

After all that work to crack Mom’s accounts, I haven’t looked at them. It has been six months, but it’s still too soon. Looking through her digital life will mean remembering her before she was gone, back when I was a daughter with the luxury of being annoyed by her calls or texts, back before she or I understood in the visceral, never-going-back way I do now that it was all going to end. I haven’t even listened to the voice mail messages from her that I still have on my phone. I do know they almost all begin in the same way: with a pause and then her voice saying, “It’s just me.”

Leslie Berlin, a historian at Stanford, is the author, most recently, of “Troublemakers: Silicon Valley’s Coming of Age.”

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What happens to our online identities when we die?

What happens to our online identities when we die?

What happens to our online identities when we die?

Click here to view original web page at What happens to our online identities when we die?

Hayley Atwell in the Black Mirror episode Be Right Back.

Esther Earl never meant to tweet after she died. On 25 August 2010, the 16-year-old internet vlogger died after a four-year battle with thyroid cancer. In her early teens, Esther had gained a loyal following online, where she posted about her love of Harry Potter, and her illness. Then, on 18 February 2011 – six months after her death – Esther posted a message on her Twitter account, @crazycrayon.

“It’s currently Friday, January 14 of the year 2010. just wanted to say: I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts,” she wrote, adding an emoji of a smiling face in sunglasses. Her mother, Lori Earl from Massachusetts, tells me Esther’s online friends were “freaked out” by the tweet.

“I’d say they found her tweet jarring because it was unexpected,” she says. Earl doesn’t know which service her daughter used to schedule the tweet a year in advance, but believes it was intended for herself, not for loved ones after her death. “She hoped she would receive her own messages … [it showed] her hopes and longings to still be living, to hold on to life.”

Although Esther did not intend her tweet to be a posthumous message for her family, a host of services now encourage people to plan their online afterlives. Want to post on social media and communicate with your friends after death? There are lots of apps for that! Replika and Eternime are artificially intelligent chatbots that can imitate your speech for loved ones after you die; GoneNotGone enables you to send emails from the grave; and DeadSocial’s “goodbye tool” allows you to “tell your friends and family that you have died”. In season two, episode one of Black Mirror, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence – what was once the subject of a dystopian 44-minute fantasy is nearing reality.

Esther Earl at home in 2010 … before she died, she arranged for emails to be sent to her imagined future self.
Esther Earl at home in 2010 … before she died, she arranged for emails to be sent to her imagined future self. Photograph: Boston Globe via Getty Images

But although Charlie Brooker portrayed the digital afterlife as something twisted, in reality online legacies can be comforting for the bereaved. Esther Earl used a service called FutureMe to send emails to herself, stating that her parents should read them if she died. Three months after Esther’s death, her mother received one of these emails. “They were seismically powerful,” she says. “That letter made us weep, but also brought us great comfort – I think because of its intentionality, the fact that she was thinking about her future, the clarity with which she accepted who she was and who she hoped to become.”

Because of the power of Esther’s messages, Earl knows that if she were dying, she would also schedule emails for her husband and children. “I think I would be very clear about how many messages I had written and when to expect them,” she adds, noting they could cause anxiety for relatives and friends otherwise.

Yet while the terminally ill ponder their digital legacies, the majority of us do not. In November 2018, a YouGov survey found that only 7% of people want their social media accounts to remain online after they die, yet it is estimated that by 2100, there could be 4.9bn dead users on Facebook alone. Planning your digital death is not really about scheduling status updates for loved ones or building an AI avatar. In practice, it is a series of unglamorous decisions about deleting your Facebook, Twitter and Netflix accounts; protecting your email against hackers; bestowing your music library to your friends; allowing your family to download photos from your cloud; and ensuring that your online secrets remain hidden in their digital alcoves.

In Be Right Back, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence.
In Be Right Back, a young woman recreates her dead boyfriend as an artificial intelligence. Photograph: Channel 4

“We should think really carefully about anything we’re entrusting or storing on any digital platform,” says Dr Elaine Kasket, a psychologist and author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age. “If our digital stuff were like our material stuff, we would all look like extreme hoarders.” Kasket says it is naive to assume that our online lives die with us. In practice, your hoard of digital data can cause endless complications for loved ones, particularly when they don’t have access to your passwords.

“I cursed my father every step of the way,” says Richard, a 34-year-old engineer from Ontario who was made executor of his father’s estate four years ago. Although Richard’s father left him a list of passwords, not one remained valid by the time of his death. Richard couldn’t access his father’s online government accounts, his email (to inform his contacts about the funeral), or even log on to his computer. For privacy reasons, Microsoft refused to help Richard access his father’s computer. “Because of that experience I will never call Microsoft again,” he says.

Our devices capture so much stuff, we don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here

Compare this with the experience of Jan-Ole Lincke, a 24-year-old pharmaceutical worker from Hamburg whose father left up-to-date passwords behind on a sheet of paper when he died two years ago. “Getting access was thankfully very easy,” says Lincke, who was able to download pictures from his father’s Google profile, shut down his email to prevent hacking, and delete credit card details from his Amazon account. “It definitely made me think about my own [digital legacy],” says Lincke, who has now written his passwords down.

Yet despite growing awareness about the data we leave behind, very few of us are doing anything about it. In 2013, a Brighton-based company called Cirrus Legacy made headlines after it began allowing people to securely leave behind passwords for a nominated loved one. Yet the Cirrus website is now defunct, and the Guardian was unable to reach its founder for comment. Clarkson Wright & Jakes Solicitors, a Kent-based law firm that offered the Cirrus service to its clients, says the option was never popular.

“We’ve been aware for quite a period now that the big issue for the next generation is digital footprints,” says Jeremy Wilson, head of the wills and estates team at CWJ. “Cirrus made sense and ticked a lot of boxes but, to be honest, not one client has taken us up on it.”

Wilson also notes that people don’t know about the laws surrounding digital assets such as the music, movies and games they have downloaded. While many of us assume we own our iTunes library or collection of PlayStation games, in fact, most digital downloads are only licensed to us, and this licence ends when we die.

What we want to do and what the law allows us to do with our digital legacy can therefore be very different things. Yet at present it is not the law that dominates our decisions about digital death. “Regulation is always really slow to keep up with technology,” says Kasket. “That means that platforms and corporations like Facebook end up writing the rules.”

Andrew Scott stars in the new Black Mirror episode Smithereens, which explores our digital dependency.
Andrew Scott stars in the new Black Mirror episode Smithereens, which explores our digital dependency. Photograph: Netflix / Black Mirror

In 2012, a 15-year-old German girl died after being hit by a subway train in Berlin. Although the girl had given her parents her online passwords, they were unable to access her Facebook account because it had been “memorialised” by the social network. Since October 2009, Facebook has allowed profiles to be transformed into “memorial pages” that exist in perpetuity. No one can then log into the account or update it, and it remains frozen as a place for loved ones to share their grief.

The girl’s parents sued Facebook for access to her account – they hoped to use it to determine whether her death was suicide. They originally lost the case, although a German court later granted the parents permission to get into her account, six years after her death.

“I find it concerning that any big tech company that hasn’t really shown itself to be the most honest, transparent or ethical organisation is writing the rulebook for how we should grieve, and making moral judgments about who should or shouldn’t have access to sensitive personal data,” says Kasket. The author is concerned with how Facebook uses the data of the dead for profit, arguing that living users keep their Facebook accounts because they don’t want to be “locked out of the cemetery” and lose access to relatives’ memorialised pages. As a psychologist, she is also concerned that Facebook is dictating our grief.

“Facebook created memorial profiles to prevent what they called ‘pain points’, like getting birthday reminders for a deceased person,” she says. “But one of the mothers I spoke to for my book was upset when her daughter’s profile was memorialised and she stopped getting these reminders. She was like, ‘This is my daughter, I gave birth to her, it’s still her birthday’.”

While Facebook users now have the option to appoint a “legacy contact” who can manage or delete their profile after death, Kasket is concerned that there are very few personalisation options when it comes to things like birthday reminders, or whether strangers can post on your wall. “The individuality and the idiosyncrasy of grief will flummox Facebook every time in its attempts to find a one-size-fits-all solution,” she says.

Pain points … should we allow loved ones to curate our legacy, or create ‘memorial pages’?
Pain points … should we allow loved ones to curate our legacy, or create ‘memorial pages’? Photograph: Yui Mok/PA

Matthew Helm, a 27-year-old technical analyst from Minnesota, says his mother’s Facebook profile compounded his grief after she died four years ago. “The first year was the most difficult,” says Helm, who felt some relatives posted about their grief on his mother’s wall in order to get attention. “In the beginning I definitely wished I could just wipe it all.” Helm hoped to delete the profile but was unable to access his mother’s account. He did not ask the tech giant to delete the profile because he didn’t want to give it his mother’s death certificate.

Conversely, Stephanie Nimmo, a 50-year-old writer from Wimbledon, embraced the chance to become her husband’s legacy contact after he died of bowel cancer in December 2015. “My husband and I shared a lot of information on Facebook. It almost became a bit of an online diary,” she says. “I didn’t want to lose that.” She is pleased people continue to post on her husband’s wall, and enjoys tagging him in posts about their children’s achievements. “I’m not being maudlin or creating a shrine, just acknowledging that their dad lived and he played a role in their lives,” she explains.

Nimmo is now passionate about encouraging people to plan their digital legacies. Her husband also left her passwords for his Reddit, Twitter, Google and online banking accounts. He also deleted Facebook messages he didn’t want his wife to see. “Even in a marriage there are certain things you wouldn’t want your other half to see because it’s private,” says Nimmo. “It worries me a little that if something happened to me, there are things I wouldn’t want my kids to see.”

When it comes to the choice between allowing relatives access to your accounts or letting a social media corporation use your data indefinitely after your death, privacy is a fundamental issue. Although the former makes us sweat, the latter is arguably more dystopian. Dr Edinja Harbinja is a law lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire, who argues that we should all legally be entitled to postmortem privacy.

If we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us

“The deceased should have the right to control what happens to their personal data and online identities when they die,” she says, explaining that the Data Protection Act 2018 defines “personal data” as relating only to living people. Harbinja says this is problematic because rules such as the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation don’t apply to the dead, and because there are no provisions that allow us to pass on our online data in wills. “There can be many issues because we don’t know what would happen if someone is a legacy contact on Facebook, but the next of kin want access.” For example, if you decide you want your friend to delete your Facebook pictures after you die, your husband could legally challenge this. “There could be potential court cases.”

Kasket says people “don’t realise how much preparation they need to do in order to make plans that are actually able to be carried out”. It is clear that if we don’t start making decisions about our digital deaths, then someone else will be making them for us. “What one person craves is what another person is horrified about,” says Kasket.

How close are we to a Black Mirror-style digital afterlife?

Read more

Esther Earl continued to tweet for another year after her death. Automated posts from the music website Last.fm updated her followers about the music she enjoyed. There is no way to predict the problems we will leave online when we die; Lori Earl would never have thought of revoking Last.fm’s permissions to post on her daughter’s page before she died. “We would have turned off the posts if we had been able to,” she says.

Kasket says “the fundamental message” is to think about how much you store digitally. “Our devices, without us even having to try, capture so much stuff,” she says. “We don’t think about the consequences for when we’re not here any more.”

• Black Mirror season 5 launches on Netflix on 5 June.

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What happens to our data when we die? Elaine Kasket on a digital dilemma

What happens to our data when we die? Elaine Kasket on a digital dilemma

What happens to our data when we die? Elaine Kasket on a digital dilemma

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Elaine Kasket.
‘Under contract law, privacy ceases on the point of death’: Elaine Kasket. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

Elaine Kasket is a counselling psychologist based in London. Her first book, All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age, examines the ethical and technical issues surrounding our data when we die.

If I were to fall under a bus tomorrow, what would happen to my Gmail and Facebook accounts?
Under contract law, privacy ceases on the point of death. But what’s interesting about this area is that big tech treats the erstwhile account holder and their data almost with the same contractual reverence as they would when this person was alive. So they end up privileging that concept over the needs, requests and wishes of the next of kin.

But that’s not what relatives expect; they would assume to inherit data much like they would shoeboxes of letters, photographs and so on.
Exactly. In the UK laws of succession, the two tests are tangibility and value. So if something’s tangible, even if it has no value, you can execute it in a will. Or it will automatically pass to the next of kin if the estate goes to them. So people assume the digital stuff is going to obey the same rules, but it doesn’t.

Generally speaking, what’s the social media company response to relatives’ requests for access to their deceased’s accounts?
Something along the lines of: “We’d love to be able to help you with this but we’re not able to.” They say they are protecting the (technically nonexistent) right of privacy of the deceased. You could call it agency laundering.

Occasionally this attitude has been challenged in court…
One of the most ridiculous cases was where Hollie Gazzard was murdered by an ex-boyfriend. Her Facebook account contained photographs of her with her killer. Facebook told the family that they needed to protect Holly’s privacy by not allowing them to selectively edit her profile.

Hasn’t Facebook recently tried to address some of these problems?
Earlier this month it announced it will be using artificial intelligence to stop profiles from sending out troubling things such as birthday reminders and so on. But for every person who’s upset by a reminder there could be another family member who would mourn their loss. Because the thing is, grief is idiosyncratic. There is no rule book for grief. And if there were one, a profit-driven company, such as Facebook, shouldn’t be writing it.

Facebook’s business model is to collect data to encourage people to buy things. Dead people aren’t consumers. What’s the business case for maintaining memorial accounts?
There are several things. The only reason some people stay on Facebook is that there are memorials for people who are dear to them. And once you deactivate your account, the deceased user is no longer able to re-add you – you are locked out of the cemetery.
Another reason is that even if the person is no longer available to buy something, their data can still be analysed and be valuable to a company for a number of purposes.
They used to cull the accounts of deceased users, but there was user backlash from that. Ultimately, automatic profile retention is the least resource-heavy thing to do.

At some point there will be more dead Facebook accounts than live ones.
The Oxford Internet Institute recently predicted there could be 2bn dead Facebook accounts by the end of the century.

That’s a lot of data…
Although we’re doubling what we can store every couple of years, it’s not, like infinite – and our devices capture more and more stuff by default. That surplus data, either with the aid of artificial intelligence or human decision making will be jettisoned, and big tech will be making those decisions.

Meanwhile, people have to act like hackers to gain access to their relatives’ accounts
They are forced to break the law. They are impersonating people, using other people’s passwords… but we let it slide, because what else can you do? I’m not sure if I’m happy to leave someone a set of my passwords; they might find things that were important, but they would have access to everything else. Even if one isn’t harbouring toxic secrets, that’s still quite a thing.

Belief in the afterlife is strengthened by the sense that the dead are remaining socially influential via the internet.

Like people, social networking sites, such as MySpace or Friendster, also die…
The Marie Kondo idea that you should be storing all your books, photographs and music in the cloud, so we have nice clean shelves, is great. But just be aware that your grandchildren might know nothing about you – unless someone is taking the time to think: that platform is becoming obsolete, let’s make sure we download an archive. Companies aren’t going to do this for you; they’re not humanitarians, they are profit-based companies. Look at the history of computing: coding changes, hardware changes, software changes. Your data won’t survive. Moreover, you can’t bequeath your collections of music or books – all you’ve done is purchased a user licence agreement limited by your lifespan. The music isn’t yours; what you have is permission to listen.

Have social media changed how we mourn?
It makes the deceased much more present. The industrial revolution, with its hospitals and suburban cemeteries, enabled us to keep death at arm’s length. But the internet is tailor-made for continuing bonds; it makes it exceptionally easy, because the dead live in tech already. There’s dead people’s data everywhere: their Amazon reviews, their Trip Advisor recommendations. You may encounter something that influences you and have no idea whether it is authored by a dead or a live person. The dead remain socially active in a way that is unprecedented. They are undifferentiated, ambiguously there.

You write about people who leave messages on memorial pages who often talk about “getting through” to the deceased…
The sociologist Tony Walter describes how the internet is a particularly amenable place for angels. Historically, angels were messengers between heaven and Earth, but now they inhabit the ether where we can readily access them. Lots of nonreligious people have a belief in the afterlife, and this is strengthened by the sense that the dead are remaining socially influential via the internet.

An idea explored by Black Mirror and others is that we could one day be able to upload the contents of our brain or our consciousness to the cloud and create a hologram or virtual version of ourselves, which people could continue to interact with. Is this wise?
I find it faintly narcissistic. These people are dealing with their own terror of not being alive. They assume people would still like to hear from them when they are dead! Moreover, you may well run into some of the same problems of digital legacy: the platforms need updating, the code ceases to work, and so on.

What’s the bare minimum you’d advise people to do?
It’s a good idea to clean your digital house frequently. If nothing else, you don’t want relatives buried under a hundredweight of undifferentiated data with no sense of what is important to you. The default is to become a digital extreme hoarder, with data up to the rafters. The things which are really important to you, the artefacts you want to pass on to future generations, put them in a physical form. You cannot trust corporations to safeguard your data.

 All the Ghosts in the Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age is published by Little, Brown (£14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Untrending: Thinking in terms of legacy

Untrending: Thinking in terms of legacy

Untrending: Thinking in terms of legacy

Click here to view original web page at Untrending: Thinking in terms of legacy

Vicki McLeod

As I write this, I’m putting the finishing touches on a book manuscript. It will be sent to the editor in the morning, and following about a month of substantive edits, it will go into the hands of a copy editor to take care of things like commas and periods.

After that, it will be readied for print. The book will be released in March 2019. I’ve had the privilege of co-writing the manuscript with my friend and colleague Angela Crocker. Angela is well known as a digital thought-leader, offering expertise in a wide range of digital life skills. This book is her fifth and my second. The book has been a collaborative effort and a labour of love.

It required us to first craft a shared vision regarding what the manuscript would be and what shared perspective we’d take. We devised an outline, a list of resources, a meeting schedule and set manuscript milestones.

Then we had to roll up our sleeves and write. As we dug into research and explored topics, new ideas emerged and we negotiated changes as we incorporated our new findings. Our aim: always to make the manuscript better.

The book is called Digital Legacy Plan: a guide to the personal and practical elements of your life before death. It will be published by Self Counsel Press and it is already listed for advance sale on Amazon.comAmazon.caAmazon.uk and Barnes and Noble. It’s the real deal. The subject matter is sensitive, death being a relatively taboo subject, and writing about it forced us to look at our feelings about death and dying and our own digital footprints. We’ve had to step back at times and give each other room to reflect on losses, revisit our own grief. We’ve had to really listen to each other and respond with empathy and respect.

It’s taken a kind of personal leadership from both of us to ease our project over the bumpy spots, and stay focused on reasons why the book matters. I’m writing about this, partly because digital legacy planning is an interesting subject for a column, but also because Saturday is election day.

What’s important is that you vote. For those who are running, what’s important is what comes after the vote. At the end of the day, we will have a newly elected mayor, council and school board. For some, this will be a completely new role. Others will bring experience with them.

Collaboration is not easy. It requires skillful communication and buckets of good intentions. It will be important that our new civic leaders find their way to a shared vision for the community. They will need to practice a kind of give-and-take and a willingness to negotiate and find common interests that are not required while campaigning, but is crucial to governing.

They will need to see big picture, and at the same time grasp a vast array of new information.

Angela and I chose to work together. We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and we have a good measure of our capacity to stickhandle our differences.

For the newly elected, it’s a different story. They will be working with people that they may not know, or whose platforms they opposed. Still, they will be called upon to make decisions collaboratively, for the good of the whole.

For some people, certain issues are more emotional than others. Some may be heavily attached to promises made during the election and focus on quick outcomes. Others may take a longer view.

Perspective is everything, and a shared one is hard won. Decisions taken now will have an impact quite possibly far into the future.

Given the context of my book project, I can’t help but think in terms of legacy. The people we elect tomorrow carry the future in the hands. It is the community they are stewarding, and their legacy belongs to all of us.