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Interview: Why we need a GDPR for dead people

Back in 2000, there was no Facebook or Twitter and the smartphone revolution had not begun. Today, digital identities outlive the people they represent

In April last year, analysis by Carl Öhman and David Watson at the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) reported that there would be a minimum of 1.4 billion deceased users on Facebook by 2100 if the social media network had stopped attracting new users as of 2018. But if the network continues to expand at current rates, this number will exceed 4.9 billion, the researchers said.

Death in the digital age is the subject of a new book by Elaine Kasket, counselling psychologist and an associate fellow of the British Psychological Society. All the ghosts in the machine explores the subject of what happens to people’s digital footprint when they die.

Speaking to Computer Weekly in December, Kasket discussed how one of the side-effects of the digital age is the growing interest in tangibility. “The interest in vinyl records and [camera] film shows human affection for tangibility,” she says. “They also allow us to have greater control, without interference from a service provider.”

In All the ghosts in the machine, Kasket recalls how a box of love letters exchanged between her grandfather and grandmother revealed something unexpected about the relationship. Her grandfather and the rest of the family had considered the grandmother as “uncaring”, but the letters revealed a deep affection.

The letters gave an insight into the life of a working-class family living in pre- and post-war America. The handwritten letters revealed that Kasket’s grandmother was truly, madly, deeply in love with her grandfather. It may be a personal example, but for Kasket, the question everyone should consider is: how does such information survive and get passed down to future generations in the digital age?

Over their lives, people are likely to collect many things, including letters, books and records, photographs, home movies and videos. These pieces of memorabilia represent snapshots of people’s lives – memories that can be passed on to future generations. But since 2006, the social media revolution has meant that, rather than curating things, people now produce a constant stream of digital updates – pictures, videos, comments and likes.

But Kasket says: “You can’t bequeath digital things. Data controllers have to decide what data gets cold. They can have bias. Whose history will be maintained? Whose data is preserved, and why?”

Eulogised by strangers

In November, during the House of Beautiful Business event in Lisbon, Kasket described how she ran an exercise called Eulogy, in which a volunteer agreed to be eulogised by strangers. In the exercise, a portal was set up into the volunteer’s digital social media footprint, and people were invited to stalk that person digitally, spending 15 minutes trying to capture what the volunteer’s life was about.

“The results were extraordinary,” says Kasket. “How much personal information is out there that people don’t know about?” For instance, she says, people are not responsible for social media updates that tag them.

“People run into so many surprises when they Google themselves,” she says. “It might be governmental; data from a company you worked for. They are digital reflections. Even an IoT [internet of things] device will capture a lot of data about someone... ‘Alexa, write my eulogy.’ She will have access to all the same facts.”

Today, society is debating what happens when artificial intelligence (AI) meets the existing pool of data about a living person. There are huge ethical questions. But, says Kasket: “The GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation] doesn’t cover the dead. The spoken word is being replaced by digitised data. How can you access a dead person’s message thread without accessing a whole load of information about people the deceased was connected to?”

When people die, the data about them is no longer bound by data protection regulations, she points out. “Businesses can mine it for market insight and use it to train new AI algorithms. Retaining data about the deceased is also a way to keep people staying connected on Facebook, because all your history is on the site.”

Read more about digital archives

But Kasket adds: “Not every service is morally obliged to capture digital memory. Twitter didn’t have a memorialisation process. They wanted to cull inactive accounts. But they have now postponed the cull.”

The challenge of post-mortem privacy is currently being taken up in Germany, she says.

For Kasket, people need to start thinking about the digital remains they want to leave behind when they die. “When I think about what my family needs, I need to audit stuff, and there may be two- or three-factor authentication,” she says. “You may have legal access, but your descendants don’t have any way to access the information digitally.”

Kasket suggests that people need to make a concerted effort to curate the information they want to leave behind when they die. “Time and attention is something we don’t often take,” she says. “We need to be able to see the wood from the trees. What data is meaningful to us? This is a much smaller handful of information than all the data we create. Transform it, download it, and put your data somewhere safe.”

Just maybe, the revival of vinyl records and the enigma of using a film camera shows that people are starting to appreciate the significance of tangible information over things they own that reside only in the digital domain.

All the ghosts in the machine by Elaine Kasket is available from 23 January, 2020.

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