Passwords, banking records, social media accounts—day by day our lives create more and more data. But what becomes of all that data when we pass away is a looming problem with no clear answer.
Marc Davis, a partner architect at Microsoft responsible for online services such as Bing, MSN, and advertising, raised this and other troubling issues about citizens’ rights to their own information at a panel at this weekend’s SXSW conference, called “Demystifying Online Privacy and Empowering the Digital Self.” Despite our increasingly data-intensive lives, Davis explains, the legal framework around our personal data just isn’t there yet. “Usually, where commerce and society meet legally is the concept of property,” Davis said. “What’s missing is a concept of contract law and property rights for digital information.”
Consider the concept of a digital will: A legally binding statement to the world declaring who should have access to your information after you die. It’s a question that is bound to get only more complicated as our digitally engaged population grows older and expires. Think about how many passwords and online accounts you have. Who else has access to that information now? Whom would you like to get access after you die? How would the providers that host that data in the cloud even know you died, and what standards could they use to verify that fact? As the information we store in the cloud becomes more voluminous and valuable, these questions become more than simply academic.
Davis tells PM that professionals in the legal, funeral, and estate planning professions are just starting to come to grips with the problem of what to do with information after death. He’s been part of several panels on the subject in the past two years, and recently there have been a series of Digital Death Days intended to educate the industry about the problem (the next one in the United States is May 6th, in San Francisco). A few startup companies such as Legacy Locker and Entrustet have also sprung up to handle the legal and financial issues of data after death.
Yet most people don’t know how much data they have in the cloud in the first place, and have made no preparations for what happens to that information after death. “More and more people are living their lives online, but also their lives in the physical world are connecting to the Internet,” Davis says. That produces information with obvious financial value, such as banking and tax records, but also plenty of information with personal value: photos, music, communications, and social networking accounts. Then add in all of the data we automatically generate relating to our location, buying habits, Internet surfing histories, and more. “There’s a whole swath of data that we create that increasingly gets bound to our identity so that we leave a digital legacy,” Davis says.
The subject is deeply intertwined with the larger issue of digital identity. As Davis points out, that it’s not just after death that digital property issues come into play. “Every life phase we go through where we’ve established structures, documents and contracts to handle property and identity—birth, marriage, divorce, retirement—we’ve created as a civilization ways to handle the movements of rights and assets. So we’re at that time in history now where we’re applying these metaphors and frameworks onto the digital realm.”
The courts probably won’t figure out this complicated conundrum anytime soon. But for individuals the solution is simple, Davis says—include a digital will along with your regular will. Leave instructions for how to get to your digital assets and what to do with them. Then your online identity won’t end up in digital limbo.