Our Digital Legacy

After listening to around 45 minutes of an hour-long lecture, the urge to check his or her smart phone can be overwhelming.  A usual destination is Facebook, then perhaps Gmail and, for the very ambitious, LinkedIn.  The slightly more arts-oriented classmates will upload pictures to Flickr and the gaming community will be engrossed in some visually stimulating alternative universe. Fast-forward to 2070, and each of us will find a lifetime of digital content tied to our identity.  Thousands of documents and photos may be stored on your hard drive, some cloud software or, more likely, something that has yet to be invented.  What happens to all this digital property when we are no longer around? According to an article in New Scientist, 250,000 Facebook users are going to die next year, which poses the question of how we should view digital property and what, if any, laws should regulate it.

There are two different schools of thought regarding the future of digital property and data.  The “preservationists” claim that we owe it to future generations to keep all our embarrassing pictures, offhand comments, and incriminating status updates.  Future archeologists, sociologists, anthropologists, psychologists, and economists will have access to incredible amounts of data from the dawn of the World Wide Web and the digital age. The other camp, originally named the “deletionists,” believes it is important that the internet learn how to forget and move on. The deletionists also point out that without the deletion of content after death, the Internet will eventually be awash with dead data, as the dead will inevitably outnumber the living.

Today multiple organizations and companies hoard data in order to understand and profit from our behavior and preferences. Importantly, platforms such as Facebook, Flickr or Gmail have separate servers, making it unclear to whom the data belongs after death.  The European Union has enshrined “the right to be forgotten” as a key objective in their 2011 data protection strategy.  The right to be forgotten means that users have the right to ask for their data to be removed once the original purpose of the data has been met.  But in many countries digital property rights are still unchartered territory with most people not accounting for digital property in their will.

We have to learn to include digital property in our will, as it possesses not only sentimental value but also economic value.  Emails from actors, presidents, Nobel Prize winners or sport figures will surely have monetary and historical worth. Similarly digital intellectual property rights also become controversial as it is unclear who owns them post mortem.  There have already been incidents where parents who are distressed at the death of their children and are unable to guess the password to their children’s online accounts have been refused access.  To add to the mess, an increasing number of financial contracts and important documents are sent over email. In order for family members to clean up after the deceased, access to email accounts can become vital.

Although individual privacy is important, we also need to focus on the aggregate data that is left behind on the Internet.  Most family members will not be willing to go through every single account and clean it up and put it into discs; instead the data will simply sit and rust.  In the case of Google, all your emails will be deleted after nine months without use and the entire account will be deleted after 12 months of inactivity. Imagine the amount of interesting information that is lost and can never be recovered by family members and future generations of academics.

So should our digital records be preserved? And if they should be preserved, who will be the ones to preserve them? Not only are our email accounts fickle, but also websites and important technology companies can also quickly become outdated and shut down. This happened to Geocities when Yahoo pulled the plug on them in 2009. Jason Scott decided to maintain and save as many Geocities pages as he could, creating a 641-gigabyte archive, which can be found at reocities.com.  By archiving seemingly trivial websites, our generation allows archeologists, artists, and social scientists to gain a comprehensive image of our lifestyle, hopes, and worries. There needs to be greater awareness and responsibility concerning digital property, as access to email accounts can become legal nightmares. If we feel that none of our data is protected past death, it may change what we leave for posterity, meaning that the data future academics do find may be compromised.

Anja C. Nilsson ’15, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Stoughton Hall.

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