Louisa Holman
5 min read

What Happens to Our Digital Data When We Die?

We’re now a year into the new world of GDPR with consumers supposedly reaping the benefits of marketers’ fear of feeling the wrath of the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) and the Courts. This improvement in data security can only be a good thing for everyone, but this greater awareness has also raised a lot of questions about data. So, the topic I want to talk about is: what happens to our data when we die?

Facebook Under Scrutiny

A recent study by Carl J. Öhman and David Watson, called “Are the dead taking over Facebook? A Big Data approach to the future of death online” has caught the imagination of marketers as well as the mainstream news media. The study projects the number of profiles belonging to deceased Facebook users and suggests that a minimum of 1.4bn users will pass away before 2100 if Facebook’s growth does not continue to grow at its current rate.

This means Facebook will eventually become the world’s biggest digital graveyard, a snapshot of any point in time. Some have even said that in writing our Facebook profiles, we will ultimately be writing our own obituaries and providing our descendants with fascinating and detailed insights into their ancestors that those who currently partake in a little genealogy could only dream of.

Isn’t it just fascinating to think that we have only just started asking the biggest philosophical question in relation to our digital footprint? Here are a few points that interested me and might give us something to think about in relation to our own digital legacies.

Who owns my data when I die?

Did you know that GDPR only applies to the personal information of those living? This means that once we shuffle off this mortal coil, GDPR regulations no longer apply. What is interesting though is that member states may make additional provisions for data belonging to the deceased. If you think about how the NHS treats your data, they maintain confidentiality beyond death and also, consider consent given prior to death.

It makes sense that works the same with our personal data. I mean, what value is it to companies once a deceased person’s estate is all wrapped up?

So what about my social media profiles?

As the biggest social media platform with over 2.23bn Monthly Active Users (MAUs), let’s focus on Facebook.

Facebook states that you own all data and content you post on their website. However, in their privacy policy, Facebook says that information will be shared with business partners and researchers. This means that every click you make on (and even off) Facebook provides the social media giant with additional data points that helps them deliver more relevant ads to you based on your interests.

But what does that mean after we’ve passed on?

GDPR requires companies to hold data for no longer than is necessary for the purposes for which it is being processed, but Facebook offers two options to those who are ready to confront their own mortality:

  1. Nominate a legacy contact who will be able to manage your memorialised profile.
  2. Permanently delete your profile. You can do this under “Manage Account”, “Request account deletion”, and then click “Delete after death”

Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest have provisions for authorised persons to have an account deactivated or memorialised i.e. posts will remain visible only to those that they were previously available to and no one will be able to log in and make any further changes.

So now for the big questions…

The success of a social marketing platform entirely depends on its ability to evolve and attract new, young users and if Facebook fails to do so, our digital legacies are at stake and yes, it matters.  

Remember when I asked what value a deceased person’s data has? Whether we like it or not, our social media profiles are going to be of sentimental interest to those mourning us; they’ll also offer historical, sociological and political interest as the years tick by and the task of preserving this data is going to grow into a mammoth one.

  • How will Facebook use the data of those connected and interacting with our profiles to boost their profits if the site’s growth stagnates or declines?
  • What will happen to the archived data if Facebook does ever goes bust?
  • With so many international users, how would this data be processed legally in the relevant countries?
  • Could future generations be looking at a “digital legacy” tax to pay for data hosting and archiving costs?
  • With dead users increasing, how will Facebook be able to continue monetising their platform AND continue turning a profit when so much money will need to be invested in archiving and preserving data as new technology emerges?

These aren’t questions for the average person to answer but with all of the information we so willingly give away to stay in contact with our friends, family, and brands that we interact with, do we as users need to start thinking about our own big data in relation to the bigger picture of our digital legacy?


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