Social networks are getting better at dealing with death, while people and companies are building new digital rituals for grieving online. The dead will overrun Facebook. We’ll chat with our ancestors online. Memorials won’t be cut from stone, but carved out in pixels. While the idea of never letting […]
As the social media manager at LACMA, I am deeply entrenched in digital communication both professionally and personally through the various social networks I use on a daily basis. For the most part, I am comfortable with technology, which some might feel wary of or even fear. So when I heard about the Hereafter Institute, I was intrigued and even excited. The thought of a digital afterlife hadn’t really crossed my mind, even though I had witnessed and experienced loss in the past decade, often communicated and memorialized through Facebook and other social media.
To think about my own death and the subsequent decisions my kin would make regarding my online presence would be an eye-opening experience. So I arrived at LACMA on a Sunday afternoon and proceeded to the Bing Theater lobby. I was greeted by a woman in a white lab coat, who escorted me to a desk to check in. The desk was staffed by two more women in lab coats, release forms neatly stacked atop, next to pens and stickers branded with the Hereafter Institute’s infinity loop logo. After filling out the form, I was asked to wait on one of the black leather Barcelona chairs, which formed a U-shaped waiting area surrounding a glass table with a single white orchid. Familiar spaces had been transformed into a more institutionalized setting to fit with the performance.
Another woman in a lab coat escorted me to the Director’s Lounge in the Pavilion for Japanese Art, where she asked me questions about my online presence and told me about the three options for a person’s data when they die: 1) Continuation 2) Deletion 3) Memorialization. There isn’t space to explain each, but if you’re curious, leave a comment, and I’ll go into more detail!
She also informed me that Facebook has a “legacy contact” setting that allows you to designate one of your friends on the network to manage your profile when you pass. She gave me the option to follow along and do it in the moment. With a “no time like the present” attitude, I designated my oldest friend as my digital heir. Facebook allows you to write a personalized message for the notification it sends your heir, so I added the disclaimer that I’d explain later and not to be alarmed.
Next, I was asked to stand on a turntable so they could create a 3D scan of my body (something which I had done before at the Museum of Art and Design in New York—I even have a little figurine of myself to prove it).
My tour guide said they would use the scan to create an animated avatar of me. Once completed, we left the Pavilion for Japanese Art and meandered through the museum’s beautiful bamboo garden and into the Art + Technology Lab.
Here, another woman in a lab coat explained that I would be viewing examples of digital memorials for three different people in virtual reality. I lifted the VR headset over my eyes and she outfitted me with headphones playing calming music. I saw two people memorialized in computer-animated spaces, complete with a voiceover by a loved one describing the person. One had a guitar and was sitting on a couch on a sunny beach, while the other was pacing around her own personal gallery where artworks floated in a room without walls. Then I felt a tap on my shoulder and the headsets were removed.
It was time for the final component of the performance. I must admit I was a little worried that I would be emotionally affected by this part. Two flower arrangements flanked a dark screen. A stranger stood in front of the screen and began talking about me in the past tense, eulogizing, throwing out real facts from my life, including where I grew up, where I went to high school, the places I had worked, and the names of family members.
The screen behind him flickered and cycled through dozens of messages I had written on Facebook in the recent past, and then my avatar walked into the frame, wearing the same black shirt, long gold necklace, jeans, and flip flops I was still in. I watched my digital self turn and walk off into the horizon. The lights went up and I was once again greeted by my guide, who walked me outside and bid me farewell.
I left feeling introspective about the part of myself I share online, and the persona I’ve created that has the potential to live on beyond my physical body. My experience with the Hereafter Institute was sometimes entertaining, sometimes thought-provoking, and even a little eerie. I’m not a morbid person, but I now I think I might like to prepare my digital legacy for when I die.
Most of my working life is spent thinking and writing about technology, gadgets, design and gaming. And while it might sound trite, my favourite part of all this is people.
There’s nothing better when I’m in front of my Mac’s glowing screen than an editor sending a juicy commission that involves me getting in touch with a bunch of talented folks, to find out their views on a particular subject, and then weave them into a feature.
Recently, I was asked by a games mag you’ve probably all heard of to write about Apple TV and gaming, largely from a development standpoint. As ever under such circumstances, I went through my list of email and Twitter contacts, seeing this as a good opportunity to offer some exposure to indie developers whose work I’ve enjoyed over the years. One response came back very quickly, albeit from a name I didn’t quite recognise. The message was in fact from a developer’s wife; the person I was trying to get in touch with had died the previous week.
The developer in question was Stewart Hogarth, who’d lost his battle with congenital heart disease; he was just 34. We’d only been in touch a few times, but I’d been captivated a couple of years ago by his truly excellent 8-bit tribute I Am Level for iOS and Android. This was a smart, charming, entertaining title that married eye-searing Spectrum-style graphics, old-school single-screen platforming challenges, and modern mobile tilt-based controls. It was still installed on all of my devices, and it was strange and very sad to think that the person who created it was no longer with us.
Another developer I was interviewing at the time expressed his shock regarding Stew’s passing, and also concern that his work’s availability was now potentially on borrowed time.
As a developer, he said it was almost like a little of his soul somehow went into each app or game he made; through what you’ve created, you can in some way live on if you’re no longer around. This of course isn’t new thinking — people often say similar things when it comes to art and literature, and even film and music. But those mediums have the kind of longevity that just isn’t afforded to modern digital apps.
Once a developer account lapses through non-payment, the apps are gone forever, which feels wrong.
The notion of dealing with death is something that social networks are slowly getting to grips with. Facebook enables you to make a request to memorialise someone’s account, and helpfully notes what will happen to that person’s page and settings.
Naturally, things remain far from perfect in the social networking space — I’ve heard of automated friend suggestions appearing in people’s timelines from colleagues, friends and love ones who have died. But at least mechanisms are starting to be put in place for protecting the original accounts and precious memories.
For apps and games, things are more complicated. Developer accounts are tied into contractual frameworks. Typically, it’s possible to add extra administrators to your account, but it’s hard to know how many independent developers make such arrangements. After all, who expects they won’t be around tomorrow?
On contacting Apple and Google while writing this article, I discovered there are at least policies in place for a relative taking over an account, which can potentially be achieved by way of full and proper legal checks and identity verifications. Titles someone created can then live on, at least as long as someone pays relevant annual dev fees and bills.
That’s business, but it seems so cold and uncaring. It doesn’t really recognise that those creative endeavours are part of the people who made them.
Perhaps the gatekeepers of mobile content should consider enacting a policy like Facebook’s. It would be rather lovely to think I Am Level could live on regardless, rather than one of the things people think of when remembering Stew just one day disappearing forever.
Stewart Hogarth’s family are raising money in his memory, for the Freeman Heart & Lung Transplant Association. The writer of this article has made a donation.
When a person dies, friends and relatives must decide whether to delete all the deceased’s data or to ensure the digital survival of the deceased. A huge amount of data and information is collected about people during their lifetimes, and the growth of professional and personal social networks (eg, Linkedin, Facebook, Instagram and Google+) is increasing this phenomenon.
Existing legal void
As the digital era continues, an increasing number of social network user accounts belong to deceased persons. The French data protection authority, the Commission Nationale de l’Informatique et des Libertés (CNIL), has estimated that 1% of all Facebook profiles worldwide (130 million profiles) belong to a deceased person.
During their lifetimes all people have the right to access, modify and delete their data (eg, photos, lifestyle and professional data). However, these rights attach to the person and do not continue when he or she dies.
Unlike inheritance law, which recognises heirs as the continuation of the deceased person, in regard to digital matters the heirs have no right to stop the use of processed data or recover data if the deceased person expressed no last wishes.
Only Article 40 of the Data Protection Act (78-17) deals with the data of deceased persons, and simply provides that “the heirs of a deceased person, providing proof of their identity, may… require the data controller to take the death into account and update the data accordingly”.
Given the challenges posed by digital data and information, in communications of October 29 and 31 2014 the CNIL evoked the balance that must be struck between the right to be forgotten and digital immortality.(1) However, the CNIL highlighted that it was not its role to arbitrate on this issue, and therefore called on the public authorities and internet stakeholders to debate this issue. Some scholars have suggested that inspiration could be drawn from the regime governing the transmission of copyright after death, which allows the transmission of personality rights.(2)
Bill for Digital Republic
In response to this issue, the government has published the Bill for a Digital Republic, which proposes to supplement Article 40 by allowing a person to “set instructions relating to the retention and disclosure of his/her personal data after his/her death”.
Therefore, before people die, they may decide how they “wish their rights under this Act to be exercised after their death”. The instructions may cover all processing of the instructing party’s data or only specific data.
Most importantly, the bill provides that in the absence of instructions, the “heirs may exercise the rights of access, rectification and opposition after his or her death”. Therefore, if the bill is passed, heirs will be allowed to inherit certain personal rights.
Lastly, the bill creates a new obligation for all data hosts, which will have to inform users as to what will happen to their data after they die and allow them to choose whether to pass their data onto a designated third party.
Consequences for economic operators
If the bill is passed, data controllers will have to deal with new constraints and new types of request.
Indeed, even though it is hosts, publishers and digital platforms which will primarily be affected, any data controller may have to deal with requests from trusted third parties or heirs and set up measures to ensure that requests to access, modify or delete reflect the deceased person’s last wishes or the heirs’ wishes. This will not be an easy task, and it is likely that the CNIL will often be called on to intervene in difficult circumstances.
Therefore, estate planning should take these new digital issues into account, and it would be entirely appropriate to address them in wills. As a result, notaries will have to consider these new issues when drafting documents. Users need to ask themselves a very real question about the virtual world: digital oblivion or digital eternity?
For further information on this topic please contact Matthieu Dary or Alexandre Diouf at FIDAL by telephone (+33 1 46 24 30 30) or email (email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org). The FIDAL website can be accessed at www.fidal.com.
Death is a haunting thought no matter what. But for those of us living blissfully in the Internet age of social networks and email accounts, mortality becomes even more terrifying when we tack on the fate of our digital existence.
Inspired by the 2011 Fukushima accident, the recent euRathlon outdoor robotics competition set out to test how well robots cope with realistic mock emergency-response situations.
Without the proper amount preparedness and clear-headed foresight, a digital life left forsaken might cause a lot of … inconvenience.
Not only are there risks of fraud and identity theft with an unkempt digital afterlife, but there’s also the possibility of exposing our darkest, digital secrets to unsuspecting (or overly curious) loved ones.
OK, maybe we don’t all have secrets lurking in our various inboxes. But anyone hoping to maintain some degree of privacy after death needs to take action before the reaper comes knocking.
Google, Facebook, Twitter and other sites have various policies in place to deal with deceased users, so being aware of some of the options will help you maintain control over your information — even from the grave.
Google: The company behind Gmail, YouTube and Google Plus has created a feature called “Inactive Account Manager,” which allows users to decide the fate of their accounts once they are deceased or if the account becomes inactive for a long period of time.
The feature lets users choose to have their data deleted after three, six or 12 months of inactivity. It also gives the option of allowing a designated person to receive the data after a set period of time.
Before deleting data, Google will send a warning to a secondary email address or a phone number if one was provided. In instances of death, the warning can also be sent to a loved one.
Facebook: The social networking giant puts a lot of emphasis on user privacy, and this carries on even after a user dies. Facebook gives users the option to select a “legacy contact” to look after accounts, postmortem.
However, a loved one must request that an account be “memorialized” in the event of a death in order for the legacy contact option to take effect. Even then, no one will be able to log in or modify any settings, such as adding or removing friends or deleting content. Existing privacy settings will also carry over and cannot be changed.
The legacy contact can only write a pinned post, respond to friend requests and update the profile photo through a specific “manage” function. In addition, Facebook won’t show a memorialized account in its “People You May Know” section nor will it send birthday reminders.
Twitter: The microblogging site expressly states that it will not provide account access to anyone regardless of his or her relationship to the deceased.
However, Twitter will deactivate an account if contacted by a family member or a person authorized to act on behalf of an estate. To do so, the person must present Twitter with a death certificate as well as a “brief description of the details that evidence this account belongs to the deceased,” per company policy.
After 30 days, a deactivated Twitter account is permanently deleted. In some instances, Twitter says it may also remove images of deceased individuals that continue to circulate on the site.
Additional legal options: If account safeguards are not in place at the time of death, the issue of account access and data ownership turns into a legal matter — and that can become really convoluted.
According to Hillery Nye, general counsel and chief privacy officer for location-based app maker Glympse, the best case scenario is when someone signs power of attorney (POA) over to a family member or estate executor and states specifically that the POA includes access to digital properties.
“This will allow them to take over or shut down those accounts, as they see fit, and prevent them from being misused,” Nye said. “Without a power of attorney, your heirs will likely have to get a court order to gain this type of authority.”
Nye noted if POA is not specifically applied to digital properties, then the trustee of an estate could potentially gain control over those accounts.
“In most cases, that’s probably not what you want,” Nye said.
So what happens if there is no estate plan or living will? The second best option is to choose a trusted friend or family member and supply them with access information to your various accounts and details on what to do with them.
“We keep telling people to protect their passwords, but in this situation you want to have one person in charge of your digital afterlife,” said Ruth Carter, a social media attorney based in Phoenix. “You want to make sure someone has access to your passwords and can determine who gets the rights to your photos and other content you created.”
For those who make absolutely no preparations for their digital afterlife, the fate of their assets could some day be decided by law. Increasingly, state legislators in the U.S. have been trying to enact policy to address the issue of digital account access after death.
The Uniform Law Commission (ULC), whose members are appointed by state governments to help standardize state laws, has been at the forefront of this issue.
For instance, last year the group endorsed a plan that would give loved ones access to — although not control of — the deceased’s digital accounts, unless otherwise specified through a will.
But the proposal faced strong resistance from Internet service providers who cited concerns based on privacy, federal law and conflicts with terms of service agreements. After the push-back, the ULC revised its proposal, allowing Internet service providers to retain authority to determine how the digital assets are provided.
Yet as of now, only seven states have any type of legislation that deals with digital assets of the deceased. For privacy fans, that’s a scary thought.