What happens to your data after you die?

20 min read

Georgia Iacovou

15 Aug 2019

Where life is short, the internet’s memory is long.

About a month ago I was listening to a podcast called Reply All (it’s interesting and it makes me appear more intelligent at parties — try it, it could do the same for you). Someone called into the show and described how they’d been mourning their son for the last year. For this article let’s call him Greg, and let’s call his son Will.

After Will died, Greg got into his social media accounts; he contacted Will’s friends and managed to login to his Snapchat. He asked Will’s friends to send him as much content about Will as possible. Greg came across a five second video of Will at school. He watched it over and over again and built a narrative of Will’s day around those five seconds.

Greg also found Will’s laptop under his bed — he knew he was hiding it there because they had a ‘no screens at bed time’ policy of some sort. He opened it up and looked at what was on there. He knew that Will would hate the idea of him going through his laptop. But somehow it was okay to be doing this. Because Will was no longer alive.

But is it okay? Now that Will is dead, his data turns into something else entirely: a strange relic for his Dad to explore, and maybe even intrude on. But can you be ‘intruded on’ if you aren’t even alive anymore?

Data is intangible. You can’t just pass it on.

Physical possessions are so easy to handle. Not only can you pick them up, but you can throw them away too. When I’m dead, you can have my PS4. Then it goes from being my PS4 to being your PS4. Data is absolutely nothing like that. Just look at the kinds of data you can leave behind…

Inheriting Instagram account

Note: For the purpose of this article I will not talk much about medical data and financial data — the protocol around these kinds of data is fairly well established, the only more recent differences would be that a lot of it is digitised.

👩‍💻 Behavioural data: what you produce simply by being a living, clicking human on the internet. This is what companies use to serve you targeted ads; it’s exactly the kind of data that nowadays get’s compared to a resource more valuable than oil. Oil will run out one day. Data will not. We are producing it all the time by buying things, searching for things, making voice commands, getting married, walking to the shops — almost anything.

🎬 Music, movies and other media: these are probably as close to physical possessions that we’re going to get. What I’m referring to here are actual media files sitting on a local machine. E.g. music that you bought and downloaded (because I guess it was 2005). This was never really yours to begin with — you simply had the license to listen to it. Those rights die with you. If a loved one accesses such media after you die it’s technically piracy 🤦🏻‍♀️

👩‍🎨 Music, movies and other media produced by you: this is turning into a mine field — this stuff can span from random holiday snaps you put on Facebook to, for instance, a film you wrote and directed. Some of this is intellectual property and some of it is social. Some of it might look like it doesn’t matter (a hundred scribbly fanfics about a marriage between Aquaman and Pocahontas), but who can tell? You’re dead.

All the leftover remnants of your digital self within online communities; what to do with this? Delete it? Treasure it?

💬 Social data: ah yes, your deep, murky, personality-print on the internet. Your social media profiles, statuses, likes, private interactions, events you went to, events you organised. All the leftover remnants of your digital self within online communities. What to do with this? Delete it? Treasure it? What if it’s embarrassing? Again, you’re dead — do you even have the capacity to be embarrassed any more? Social media platforms each have their own way of dealing with death. Facebook’s is especially interesting, so I urge you to read on as I will cover this👇

🌮 Miscellaneous online accounts: Spotify, Deliveroo, Amazon, Netflix. Apps and services that require subscription or regular payments. The kinds of things that no one but you would have any use for. If you’re dead, your loved ones will probably want to just delete these accounts. But how do they do that if you’re the only one who can access them?

The first question that comes to mind is this: now that you’re dead, who owns all of 👆 this? The answer to this question helps us understand something very important about this kind of data: even when you were alive, no one (including you) every really owned it. But only certain people had access to it. And that is what has changed.

⚰️ Facebook’s graveyard

Ah Facebook; a deep, foggy bucket full of your digital self; from holiday snaps to never-ending political debates (arguments…). Deleting it seems callous and unnecessary, so what happens instead?

Facebook have memorialised accounts and this is how they work:

  1. Before you die, identify a legacy contact, who is someone you trust to handle your profile after you die.
  2. This is the step where you, uh, actually die. So that’s happened and now your legacy contact report this to Facebook
  3. Your account gets memorialised: no one can log in to it anymore, but friends can still see it, and even post tributes.

So there is access to the data, but it is limited. Your legacy contact can also put a pinned post on your profile, like a digitised eulogy or memorial announcement. Your legacy contact has other controls, like who can see and post tributes, and what stuff you remain tagged in.

However the whole thing falls flat at step one. What if you never identify a legacy contact? According to Elaine Kasket, who’s done a study on this exact thing, Facebook will not let go of a deceased loved one’s data in the name of protecting their privacy. That means, without a legacy contact, Facebook have the most access to your data after you die. Not sure that seems right 🤔

Tweet from SleepyEntropy declaring he doesn't care what happens to his data after death @SleepyEntropy recently asked the post-death data question on Twitter — here is a very apt response.

Arguing that it’s to protect an individual’s privacy doesn’t really hold up — do you still need privacy when you’re dead? Also, if it was truly for privacy reasons, would Facebook not simply delete it all permanently? Now, it’s very hard to control and protect the data of your dead friends and relatives if you don’t have access to it, which is something you may want for very valid reasons.

Facebook will not let go of a deceased loved one's data in the name of protecting their privacy... but do you still need privacy when you're dead?

So then what? Is this something that needs to be taken out of Facebook’s control? That depends: do you want a private corporation to be in charge of your social data after you die? When writing about a study concerning how the dead will overtake the living on Facebook, Matthew Cantor hit the nail on the head with these questions:

Is it time to appoint social media executors? Should we collect our passwords and include them in our wills? Should our Instagram accounts become part of the historical record – how else will future civilizations be made aware of our #squadgoals? Matthew Cantor, The Guardian

Solicitors: your jobs may have gotten a little more interesting.

Post-mortem tweets are a thing, be careful out there…

The way Twitter ‘handle’ deceased users is simply by deactivating the account, which is the simplest and most blanket solution. Interestingly, the deactivating does need to be done via what sounds like an executor. The way they put it in their help centre, if you’re “authorized to act on behalf of the estate” you can report the death to Twitter.

This is very different to how Facebook handles it — their way seems to identify ‘executors’ internally: to manage someone’s data on Facebook after they die, you also have to be a Facebook user. What’s more, they don’t deal with anyone outside of the whole ‘legacy contact’ model. Even an actual executor of the will. Okay…

Procedure and protocol aside, what happens when literally no one tells Twitter that you’re dead? To be fair, it would not be the first thing that comes to mind: organise funeral and report death to social media giants do not sit with equal priority on your to do list. But maybe they should? That’s what this article is here to help with 🤓

"Organise funeral" and "report death to social media giants" do not sit with equal priority on your to do list. But maybe they should?

In 2016 David Carr’s Twitter account got hacked into by some kind of sexting bot. Plot twist: David Carr died in 2015. He had about half a million followers, so this post-death intrusion basically happened in public.

In another case from 2010, Esther Earl accidentally tweeted from beyond the grave — she scheduled a tweet a year in advance and it went out six months after her death. Even worse, the tweet itself read “I seriously hope that I’m alive when this posts”. Her Mum had no idea what service she used to schedule this; the tweet went out and was jarring to her friends and family.

This seeps neatly into the wider issue: if you do not have somehow to tie up your lose ends online, your accounts, and therefore your digital self, are left out there alone and vulnerable to all sorts of nonsense because there is no longer anyone around to control or protect them. Personally, I had no idea you could schedule tweets that far in advance — do social media management platforms now have a duty to put a restriction on this? Or at least make the user aware of the risks? You know, like, “do not schedule tweets more than six months in a advance in the unlikely event that you die and give your followers nightmares” Too morbid?

Can my Instagram account make me famous after I die?

The American novelist David Foster Wallace took his own life in 2008. He was only about a third of the way through writing The Pale King. After his death, his wife and editor found the manuscript and other notes and used it all to publish the book in 2011.

Whether or not Wallace would have enjoyed their execution of his work is irrelevant — he is no longer alive, and they had the rights over his intellectual property. The posthumous publication of written works is one thing, but fast-forward to current times and what may be considered intellectual property is even less tangible.

This is because we use online platforms which fully encourage the splurging of every thought that ever comes into your head. Even shit-posting is original content. So is it your intellectual property? Can you put it in your will and identify someone as the benefactor? That would be amazing, because if I could inherit any Twitter account it would be Josh Balfour’s, who is an engineer.

Suddenly having ownership over these tweets would be an honour…

Two problems with this idea: does anyone really recognise this stuff as intellectual property? And, does it not actually ‘belong’ to the platform, as opposed to the user? In the case of Instagram, a platform millions of people use to share actual work (and not just graduation pics), it is indeed your intellectual property.

But, interestingly, Instagram get around this by saying that “We do not claim ownership of your content, but you grant us a license to use it”. Isn’t this as good as them owning it? Just read this bit from their terms of use:

When you share, post, or upload content that is covered by intellectual property rights (like photos or videos) on or in connection with our Service, you hereby grant to us a non-exclusive, royalty-free, transferable, sub-licensable, worldwide license to host, use, distribute, modify, run, copy, publicly perform or display, translate, and create derivative works of your content (consistent with your privacy and application settings). Taken from Instagram’s terms of use

In other words: Instagram can do whatever they want with your intellectual property. To stop them from doing this, you have to delete your account. But what if you’re dead and no one else knows your password?

Not only do Instagram govern your memories, but the way in which you are remembered. You could be one botched server migration project away from being entirely forgotten.

Ultimately you have very little control over the data you produce for Instagram and indeed for any other platform. Sure, you’ve gone, but your Instagram profile is still there. As long as Instagram want it on their servers. Not only do they govern your memories, but the way in which you are remembered. You could be one botched server migration project away from being entirely forgotten.

What’s more, the law doesn’t really recognise social accounts as having any tangible value, even if they do make you money. So if you’re a famous Youtuber there isn’t much you can leave behind. However, there’s so much more that can be done with your data…

Where does Black Mirror end and real life begin?

In this age of psychedelic futurism, we’ve very much cranked the art of grieving up to the next level. We’ve done this by being very clever and unlocking the ultimate achievement: yes, it’s artificial intelligence. A classic solution. I’m sure we’ve all seen or are at least aware of the famous Black Mirror episode where a woman uses her dead boyfriend’s social data to recreate him with an AI.

In 2016, Eugenia Kuyda basically did that with her friend Roman Mazurenko — she made a chat bot that was taught on roughly five years of texts and other private (but online) interactions. Roman was not a big user of social media, so the AI she built was based entirely on their personal conversations. Kuyda and other friends interacted with this bot as part of their grieving process. There are selected chat logs online available for anyone to read.

This speaks to a foundational fear that humans cannot seem to get over: a fear of their own impermanence.

The chat logs are at once chilling and heart warming. They exist in a completely new space. Is this alternative way of memorialising a tool to help you mourn? Or is it so realistic that it stops you from moving on? Further to this are questions about how Roman’s data was used:

👯‍♀️ It takes two people to text each other — if one party dies, is it okay for the other party to use the chat data however they wish?

🧐 Is this an intrusion, or something else entirely? Genuinely, what is this?

🤯 Are Roman’s personality traits ‘his data’?

Let’s look at that last question: it assumed ownership. For instance, his name is Roman. That is data about him, but does he own it? No, other people are called Roman — you can’t be the sole owner a name. He (I’m guessing this) was not a morning person. That is a personality trait. Is it also data? And if so, who governs it? Is it all of us at once?

Ownership is not a useful word when talking about data, especially this kind of data. People share mannerisms and habits and behaviours. It’s mixture of all these things that give an impression of uniqueness. What Kuyda had was mutual access to these mannerisms, habits, and behaviours. The access for Roman was of course revoked when he died. The conversations were as much hers as they were his… but is that something to make a chat bot over? Kuyda eventually founded Replika, which is actually a chat bot of yourself (and not your best friend).

Eterni.me is is a similar product. Their line is to make yourself ‘virtually immortal’. This speaks to a foundational fear that humans cannot seem to get over: a fear of their own impermanence. Why do we care so much? Can our data not die when we die? David Foster Wallace actually touched on this in The Pale King, which was written way before we were making chat bots out of ourselves.

Everybody who knows me or even knows I exist will die, and then everybody who knows those people and might even conceivably have even heard of me will die, and so on, and then gravestones and monuments we spend money to have put in to make sure we’re remembered, these’ll last what-a hundred years? Two hundred?-and they’ll crumble, and the grass and insects my decomposition will go to feed will die, and their offspring, or if I’m cremated the trees that are nourished by my windblown ash will die or get cut down and decay, and my urn will decay, and before maybe three or four generations it will be like I never existed, not only will I have passed away but it will be like I was never here. David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Don’t worry, feeble humans, there are other ways you can live on after your physical body finally grinds to a halt. You may be dead but your various online advertising profiles are most certainly still churning away.

🎯 Check this box to receive personalised ads for as long as linear time exists…

As mentioned earlier in this very article, behavioural data is something you produce all the time without even realising it. There are several problems with it, in that you don’t know who has it, where it is going, or how much of it even exists, if at all. It’s a bit of a trip but I guess that’s life, right? 🤷🏻‍♀️

Haha yes of course, that’s life. And also… death? Consider this: the data you produce online puts you into a demographic — or advertising profile — that you cannot escape. Even if you die. Yikes, if only there was a universal ‘delete all my data when I die’ button 😬.

The data you produce online puts you into a demographic — or advertising profile — that you cannot escape. Even if you die.

As an alive person, you’re online behaviours are carefully woven into the fabric of your web experience (either that or clumsily sprayed out everywhere like a child with a water gun), and in turn you are targeted with ads. This is why, sometimes, Facebook ads (and others), seem to just know what you want and who you are. There are many ways to surveil your browsing, and stuff you (and every other internet user) into very specific and granular categories.

As a dead person, all that data about you that you produce while you were alive does not simply disappear from the internet. So what happens to it? Nothing. It’s still there and it still helps companies rake in ad revenue, which begs the question: do you have to be alive to be served a targeted ad?

Venn diagram showing your data after death Very accurate diagram based on a real research that we actually did…

I’m now imagining my inbox slowly fill up with spam from every company and service I’ve ever interacted with, meekly saying to no one, “we haven’t heard from you in a while”. Lol, it’s because I’m dead — finally, an effective way to escape marketing emails.

Okay but, what about the overlap? The data you and I and everyone else have ever produced all overlap each other. You don’t receive targeted ads for dog food because you like dogs; you receive those ads because enough people similar to you also like dogs. You may never have to explicitly tell the internet that you like dogs: that data can simply be inferred. As I’ve said before, behavioural data is just a computery guessing game.

After you die you may not get served ads anymore, but the living certainly will, and it will be based on your data.

The only difference now is… you’re dead. So do you still get served ads? Well I don’t know, does a Facebook ad still exist if no one is there to see it? Don’t try and answer that, we don’t have time to do philosophy in our short, temporary lives. You may not get served ads anymore, but the living certainly will, and it will be (partly) based on your data. Who knows, there may be enough data out there to infer that you are no longer alive. And this is what helps us understand how deep our digital footprints really are.

Do we have an answer yet? What happens to your data after you die?

We’ve seen that’s it hard to know where all the data you produce is going, how much of it there is, and yes, if it even exists. If that’s the case, it’s very difficult to care about it. The thing that makes it even more difficult is being dead.

So what does this mean? Just like in life, we have limited control over what happens with our data. A lot of that is to do with the access to that data, and once you die you’ve lost access to everything except a coffin. The fact that your data outlives you is both wonderful and disturbing. Your ideas, your ability to create ad revenue for others, and even your digitised personality can just keep on going long after you die.

So while you’re alive (which I hope is for ages), think about who you want handling the rich and detailed tapestry that is your digital self. Otherwise, what could happen to your data after you die? Absolutely anything.

the author

Georgia Iacovou

Content Writer