The Digital Afterlife Project: Encouraging Posthumous Data Sovereignty through Design & Public Policy

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July 2, 2020

Content notice: this post discusses death and resolving a loved ones estate

Estimates show that 90 percent of Americans are online. We increasingly turn to online services to handle critical parts of our lives, but few platforms provide a way for user information to be safely managed or deleted after a user passes away.

In many instances, estate executors or family members are required to provide death certificates, court orders, or even sue companies for the ability to access their loved one’s online accounts.

To facilitate access to these assets, state governments can extend existing probate laws that authorize fiduciary access to digital assets by classifying estate executors as authorized agents under data privacy laws. Companies can also better design their products in order to allow users to grant custodial access and instructions on a per-platform basis before they pass away.

https://www.aspentechpolicyhub.org/project/digital-afterlife-project/

A few months ago, I wrote about how I was taking a short leave of absence from my role at Mozilla to participate in a fellowship with The Aspen Institute. The goal of this program is to teach technologists the basics of public policy, so that we can become more effective collaborators in the field of technology policy. This past week, our program work officially wrapped up with a webinar in lieu of an in-person demo day – the result of a world changed by COVID-19.

Back in February, I shared that Cecilia Donnelly Krum and I had launched the initial stages of The Digital Afterlife project, with the goal of finding ways to improve the experience that people face when resolving the digital estate of their loved ones. Today, I want to share the results of our fellowship project and my thoughts on where the conversation can go next.

A three-fold approach to improving posthumous data access

The Digital Afterlife Project covers three core approaches that can improve the lens through which we address issues related to posthumous data ownership. Our proposal takes a three-pronged approach to address different actions that can be taken to address the issues outlined in the problem statement above:

  • Individual awareness, access to planning tools, and advocacy. The majority of Americans die without a will, which leaves their possessions subject to intestate probate and resolution based on their state’s laws. While arguably effective in resolving physical real and financial assets, probate law does not sufficiently protect virtual assets. Our website, digitalafterlife.online, provides an overview of these resources and links to help people prepare individually.
  • State data privacy laws should explicitly allow legally-recognized fiduciary agents to act as an authorized agent on behalf of the deceased individual. Data privacy laws, which are increasingly being adopted at the state level within the United States, govern the ways that online platforms allow access to and deletion of a user’s data. The ability to access and delete information should be legally extended to the next-of-kin or beneficiary of a deceased individual.
  • Online platforms should offer users a way to specify how their account should be managed upon their death. Some companies, like Google and Facebook, have created features for their users to set up a steward in the event of their death. By building these tools into online account systems, designers and developers can alleviate some of the challenges that family members face in resolving an estate.

Resources

We produced several documents for different agents within the scope of our project solution. Resources that were created, as well as references for planning strategies and guidelines for digital estate planning from third party organizations, can be found at our website: digitalafterlife.online.

We have created a policy brief and sample language for regulators to consider when writing data privacy laws that includes fiduciary agents or beneficiaries of an estate when defining who is authorized to act on behalf of a deceased individual in accessing or deleting information. This suggestion was submitted to the State of California as a proposal for changing the language under the California Consumer Privacy Act, but has not yet been addressed.

Finally, we provide a toolkit for companies that includes checklists for different ways to build out product features related to posthumous access and control. This toolkit is designed to act as a guide for designers, developers, and product owners in planning how their online service will surface choices about account memorialization or stewardship to their users.

Takeaways

What stood out to me about doing this research was how uncomfortable the idea of designing features for “death” seems to be for many platforms. The research available to us on the topic suggests that many companies are unwilling to cause their users discomfort by surfacing these features to them, so even if they are available on a platform, they may not be used.

Another thing that stood out to me is the shifting nature of our comfort with talking about death. I’m observing that my peers are becoming far more comfortable talking about death as an inevitability, and Generation Z is almost infamous for the prevalence of death-related humor and memes that circulate in the zeitgeist. By normalizing these conversations, as a whole, we will be more educated and effective in sharing knowledge about resolving estates and “cleaning up after ourselves” online when we pass away.

Finally, I take away a stronger sense of skepticism with social media platforms (and to be clear, I was quite skeptical going into it). A part of our as-of-yet-untold research with The Digital Afterlife project was the relative ease with which one can fake someone’s death online. This problem, which popped up on Facebook as early as 2013, still happens in 2020. It is clear we need more intention here.

Closing Thoughts

Lawmakers in the United States have historically focused on an individual-centric approach to regulations and society, rather than encouraging the development of community-centric support systems. This is evident through the lens of how we are largely conditioned to view death: it is taboo to discuss death; once we die, we have few rights unless we are deemed to be “in the public interest” or a celebrity; the software we use doesn’t account for an event that happens to everyone.

However, technology is changing our behaviors and the impact that our information can have. Having our bank accounts digital, photos albums exist solely in virtual form, and social media accounts that outlive us all change the way that our behaviors live on beyond our physical lives. It’s time we start considering the ways that data can be used beyond our intentions, especially once we are no longer able to control or advocate for its use.

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