The social media giants are becoming digital graveyards

The social media giants are becoming digital graveyards

The social media giants are becoming digital graveyards

Click here to view original web page at The social media giants are becoming digital graveyards

In the final weeks of 2019, Twitter announced an imminent cull of inactive accounts.

Desultory users risked losing their Twitter handles and having to start building their social media presence all over again.

But there was another implication: inactivity might also mean that the person behind the profile is no longer alive.

Bereaved people reacted badly. Those who had log-in details or device access rushed to post tweets that would preserve the profiles, their messages materialising on deceased people’s feeds like voices from beyond the grave.

Not everyone could do this, though. “I don’t have my dad’s log-in,” Drew Olanoff lamented in an article on TechCrunch. “I can’t ‘wake up’ his account to keep it safe.”

Twitter back-pedalled just a day later, saying that it hadn’t anticipated the impact on the bereaved. But the emotional significance of such digital remains shouldn’t be news to anyone in Silicon Valley.

Back in 2013 Google instituted an Inactive Account Manager, and Facebook followed suit with Legacy Contact the next year, allowing users to appoint a kind of digital executor. Facebook used to delete profiles upon death but changed its policy based on user feedback following the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Instagram memorialises accounts now too, and Twitter appears set to do the same.

Social media companies didn’t mean to become digital cemeteries — they exist to connect living users, sell them things, and profit from their data. But 100 per cent of social media users will eventually die, and there are no virtual worms to nibble away all trace of our online lives: the email accounts, search histories, comments, posts, message threads, GPS tracking, and health data.

According to scholars at the Oxford Internet Institute, digitally stored information grows four times faster than the world economy, and the fact that this data glut includes millions of online ghosts is an increasing issue for the companies that house them.

Facebook may be an empire of social media now but it will eventually become the empire of death: the digital remains of 4.9bn people may be “buried” there by the end of the century, far outnumbering living users.

The big dog of social media companies isn’t the only one with problems. Innumerable businesses hoover up data without considering the end from the beginning, and most lack fit-for-purpose systems governing how to handle the data of the deceased.

They aren’t helped by lack of guidance. Unhelpfully, GDPR kicked the can down the road. In this regulatory void, companies can do whatever they want, often developing policy reactively and hastily, usually in the wake of PR problems like Twitter’s gaffe last year.

The existence of these persistent digital legacies means that we carry our lost loved ones with us, in the palms of our hands. Our smartphones serve as both amusement parks and cemeteries.

Contrary to popular misconceptions about grief, maintaining a connection with those gone before is generally neither abnormal nor unhealthy, and continuing bonds with people’s digital legacies is common. Now that we write few letters and print few photos, our memorabilia tend to be stored as binary code and mediated by service providers.

People may be outraged when digital remains disappear from online platforms, but of course they surrendered control over this eventuality long ago, when they agreed to the T&Cs which they probably didn’t read.

Blanket preservation, however, may not be the answer. Our digital legacies are often fully-fledged identities rather than mere footprints, and their contribution to the overheating of the world’s servers is not the only issue — they are also brimming with personally identifiable and often sensitive information.

Companies can currently monetise or otherwise exploit the data of the dead, analysing it for market insights, using it to train artificial intelligence models, or holding onto it to retain living users who are loath to desert the lost loved ones that still reside on the platform in digital form.

In its October report, the Data Ethics Commission in Germany recommended that service providers be obliged to handle the data of the deceased appropriately, that quality assurance standards be set for digital estate planning services, and that post-mortem data protections be instituted by the state. What this will look like in practice, in Germany and elsewhere, is all to play for.

If the concept of “digital estate planning services” sounds unfamiliar, you’re not alone, but it’s time we get acquainted with the idea. Until recently, we had no more need of it than the dead had need of privacy, but the worm has turned.

It should be our testamentary right to dispose of a lifetime’s corpus of highly personal digital information as we see fit, but seizing back control may be harder than we think, and it may not happen without first breaking up the big tech companies that have succeeded the medical establishment and funeral industry as the new masters of death.

Main image credit: Getty

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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 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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Twitter to delete inactive accounts within weeks

Twitter to delete inactive accounts within weeks

Twitter to delete inactive accounts within weeks

Click here to view original web page at Twitter to delete inactive accounts within weeks

PARIS, FRANCE - FEBRUARY 07: In this photo illustration the Twitter logo is displayed on the screen of an iPhone in front of a computer screen displaying a Twitter logo on February 07, 2019 in Paris, France. Twitter today posted better than expected Wall Street results over the last three months of 2018, with net profit up 28% and revenue up 4%, but the stock is falling. After losing 5 million monthly users by the end of 2018, the social network Twitter decided to stop giving figures. In its financial results for the fourth quarter of 2018, the company explains that this announcement will take effect in the second quarter of 2019. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)
Coveted Twitter handles are set to become available as a result of the clear out

Twitter has unveiled plans to delete accounts which have been inactive for more than six months.

Users have until 11 December to prevent dormant accounts from being affected by the huge “clean-up”.

Coveted Twitter handles are set to become available as a result of the clear out – but there are fears that accounts belonging to people who have died could end up being erased too.

The social network says it is exploring ways to memoralise such accounts, ensuring that messages and photographs are preserved for family and friends. Facebook already offers a similar feature.

Twitter says the clear out is necessary because the owners of dormant accounts have been unable to agree to the company’s new privacy policies.

The company is also considering whether to remove the accounts of users who do log in but “don’t do anything”.

Dan Hett, whose brother Martyn was killed in the Manchester Arena terror attack, is among those concerned about Twitter’s policy.

Martyn Hett
Martyn Hett was writing ‘an important digital legacy’, his brother says

Mr Hett tweeted: “Twitter and social accounts can and do become vital when someone checks out, especially when it’s unexpected like in the case of @martynhett.

“He didn’t know he was writing an important digital legacy in his throwaway tweets, but now we have it we mustn’t lose it.

“There are archival services that will scrape all the content, but this isn’t enough.

“The idea that one day you could tag @martynhett and have nothing appear, or worse someone else who’s taken the handle, is not the one.”

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?

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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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