Digital Afterlife – What happens to your data after you die?

Hi everyone.  I’ve been pretty busy the last few weeks and blog neglect is a definite consequence.  Ironically, it fits pretty closely with the story I was going to write about today, based on an article from the BBC that I came across this morning.  The issue is about the perpetuity of people’s data after they pass away.  This is a considerable concern because, unlike living things, our data can exist in some server farm for years or decades after it was generated, perhaps even forever.  There are two major concerns about this persistence of data.  The first is, as I’ve written about before, the inescapability of our own past based on the preservation of data and information like emails, photos, profile updates and hard drive backups.  Nearly everything we do has the potential to live on for years, ready to come back from obscurity at a moment’s notice.  Whether that is a net positive or negative for our society is impossible to determine at this point, but it is going to be a reality we will have to adjust to.

The second concern, as discussed in the article, is what should happen to personal accounts after you die?  We rarely make plans for what happens to us if we become sick or incapacitated but when we do, those plans most often deal only with our body and physical assets.  Do you know anyone who has left instructions for what to do with their Gmail account or Facebook profile after they die?  I don’t.  There are apparently protocols in place, determined my the companies that provide the service, but I doubt many people are aware of them or if that default approach would satisfy their final wishes.  It’s always a difficult thing, dealing with death, and digital assets just adds a whole new wrinkle.  So if you’re out there reading this and you own a large plot of land or a successful business in Second Life or a high level avatar in a MMO, you may want to think about what will happen to them if something happened to you out here in meatspace.  Our estate and probate laws are ill-equipped to deal with digital assets and so you need to plan ahead.  Even as I write this, I’m thinking about what will happen to this blog some day.  It’s quite surreal…

Anyhow, I have some friends who are working in the estate planning field and I’ll forward a link to this post on to them.  I’m very curious to see what their take on this issue is.  Hopefully we’ll get some interesting insights.

About Justin Kwong

An attorney in the Twin Cities and adjunct professor at William Mitchell College of Law where I teach a seminar on the law of virtual worlds.
This entry was posted in Contracts and Agreements, Privacy, Rights and Civil Liberties, Virtual Items / Virtual Goods, Virtual Worlds and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Digital Afterlife – What happens to your data after you die?

  1. Hey Justin! Nice blog! The topic you have chosen to write about is a very important one for the digital age. Most people have an extensive online life and very few are taking steps to preserve it. After our demise, our families might be completely unaware of what a vast virtual presence we had which is why passing on information about it to them is essential. Digital estate planning services are a great solution to preserve all digital assets in one secure place and pass on directly to heirs or other family members. They will be saved from a lot of legal hassles and have access to our memories. Plus they can take care of your digital loose ends.

    • Justin Kwong says:

      Thanks for the info. Obviously, you have a horse in this race, but it is increasingly important for someone out there to help people keep track of everything they create online. I’ve seen the two-page list of accounts and passwords my mom keeps to help her remember all the different sites she belongs to, and I can online imagine how long and obnoxious mine would be if I sat down to record them all. I’m curious, though, how do you get around all the legal hurdles established by the various sites people use? Do you work out special deals with them or what? This is actually of great interest to me, especially for my class. Any insight would be greatly appreciated. If you don’t want to share your info online, I’d be happy to talk to you offline. Let me know and I’ll shoot you my contact info.

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