Author Dr. Elaine Kasket on What Happens to our Data When We DieMar 14, 2022
Today, most people are well aware that companies collect data from their online activities in their day-to-day lives. But what happens to our data after we die?
It turns out that our data has an (after)life of its own. "Because the data of the dead stay deeply intertwined with the data of the living—and because they can be used as a conduit to mine insights about the living—they are really consequential for the privacy of the living," Dr. Elaine Kasket, author of All the Ghosts in the Machine: The Digital Afterlife of Your Personal Data, told Orchid's Derek Silva on this week's episode of Priv8.
"Our data's relationship to the living is one of the reasons that companies hold on to it after we die. This is why they guard and hoard it, when actually it would be a lot more cost effective to jettison it."
But death in the digital age isn't just about where data goes when we pass away. Elaine said that understanding our digital legacy means understanding that it is "a fundamentally multidisciplinary kind of subject.
"You can't really just look at it from one vantage point, because everything is so interconnected. Death touches on every area of our lives. There is mourning and bereavement at the beginning, of course. But after that phase, there's a period of understanding the terms and conditions of what has been signed away, and how data controllers have even more power over our identities than they did when we were alive."
Elaine said this increased control over data stems from a loss of legal rights after death.
"When we die, we don't have a legal personality anymore—and because we're dead, there's not anything we can really do about it. But since the data of the dead are so connected to the data of the living, the privacy implications of what happens to our data when we die can have major effects on other people, especially our loved ones.
"So the question is this: now that we have such well-developed digital identities—and because there's so much personal and sensitive information that we store about ourselves online—should the dead still have ongoing legal personalities in some sort of way?
"And it's not just about data mining—legal protections for the dead could also ensure that they can't be impersonated, or that their data can't be used to exploit people or engage in criminal behavior. We need to think about what should happen so that we better protect those we leave behind."