Entropy: there’s no escaping its relentless march forward. The default state of the universe seems to be a headlong rush into nothingness, until all that’s left is a cold vacuum. Caught up in that process, stuck on this rock spinning around a giant fireball that will one day explode, is humanity. Put simply, you, me, and everyone we've ever known will inevitably succumb to the march of time.
Grim tidings aside, whether we go by our own hand (Nukes!) or Mother Nature's (Space Nukes!), the fact remains that we aren't going to be around forever. This raises some important questions, like "What will happen to my glorious flame war with nepotisticbrat1946 on Twitter when I'm gone?" and "Who will profit from iseewhaturdoing2022, my immensely popular TikTok about watching paint dry, after I leave this mortal plane?"
Perhaps these are not the sort of things that run through the average person's mind on a Monday afternoon, but as privacy experts (and people who genuinely care about your before & after photos) we think about this stuff often, and we're here to tell you that you should, too.
You Are Your Data
For better or worse, your data doesn't cease to exist when you do. A lot of it may be around for a long, long time after you kick the bucket - some of it might even survive to see God Emperor Elon set foot on Mars.
Speaking of astronomical figures - the amount of data generated by humanity has been skyrocketing since the beginning of the present century. To put this in perspective, only 6 years ago, in 2016 (an eternity when it comes to technology) an estimated 1.7 MB of data was being created every second per person. The expansion of globally available storage from a "mere" 2.6 Exabytes in 1986 to a whopping 6800 Exabytes in 2020, further sheds light on how just how exponential the growth of digital data is.
In today's cloud-based digital landscape, data generated through the various accounts you hold with entities like Google, Meta, LinkedIn, TikTok, etc, essentially defines who you are as a person, which is definitely not the plot of a Black Mirror episode at all.
Consider for a moment that Google and Meta don't provide any guarantee that data they've collected can ever be entirely erased from their systems; now consider all the messages, photos, location data, and other intimate minutiae this data may contain. My colleague, Nile, talks about just how much information Google tracks here.
Unlike your 90s-era mountain bike, or your SNES cartridge collection, most of this data isn't considered your sole property from a legal standpoint; in most jurisdictions, it also belongs to the corporations who own the aforementioned platforms. When you pass away, these corporations end up subsuming your data into their databases forever unless you specify otherwise. This raises ethical and moral concerns that we've only just started trying to wrap our collective minds around.
That's just the big guys, of course. You may have forgotten all the accounts (and associated user data) you've created for trendy websites and hot apps of yesteryear, but rest assured, like your creepy ex from college, they most likely haven't forgotten about you.
It's also important to be aware that, with the right incentive and access (authorized or otherwise), all of this information can be dug up and harvested by unscrupulous parties and used to paint such a vivid image of your digital ghost that even Patrick Swayze would have a tough time competing.
The Legal Gray Areas
Even though individuals and society have largely adapted to life online, the institutions that govern and protect us have not. Legislation concerning data privacy, user rights, and ownership, has fallen behind our technological proliferation and doesn’t look to be catching up any time soon.
That being said, some countries have fared better than others, and the European Union has been at the forefront with its General Data Protection Regulation (2016). Member countries such as Norway, Denmark, and Sweden also have their own laws that complement and enhance the protection offered by the GDPR. Outside the E.U, Canada's Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA, 2000) and Australia's Privacy Act (1988) lead the way in terms of federally mandated consumer data protection.
Despite being the birthplace of the modern Internet, Silicon Valley, and Social Media as we know it, when it comes to digital rights and privacy protection, the United States lags far behind all of its contemporaries in the so-called First World. Various half-hearted bipartisan attempts over the years have failed to produce a single federally mandated, comprehensive law to protect its citizenry. What does exist is an oftentimes outdated, porous patchwork of state, sector, and medium-specific laws, mandated by alphabet soup entities at various levels of government.
Ultimately, depending on where you are in the world, you may be more or less protected by the legal institutions of your country; but as the real and digital become more and more intertwined, here's hoping the relentless march of progress will eventually win out against the mind-numbing inefficiencies of politics and bureaucracy.
Ensuring Your Post-Death Privacy
As with most things in life, when it comes to your digital legacy, preparation is the best course of action - both for yourself and for the loved ones you leave behind. Most of the major players (Google, Meta, et cetera) allow you to set up instructions on what ought to be done if your account becomes inactive, or if your passing is reported to them by next of kin.
Google has its Inactive Account Manager that allows you to set the parameters for when and how your account is considered inactive, and what data, if any, is shared with your designated Trusted Contact. Facebook allows you to set up instructions to memorialize or delete your account after death, as well as appoint a Legacy Contact who can act on your behalf (with certain restrictions) once you're gone.
Instagram, while also being a part of Meta, has limited options on how accounts are handled post-mortem. While you're not provided with any pre-emptive options, friends or family can contact Instagram to report your passing and, once validated, are then provided with the ability to entirely delete or memorialize your account. This, while slightly bizarre, is still better than rival TikTok, which seemingly has no policies in place for handling a deceased person's account.
As the old adage goes, prevention is always better than the cure, and in that spirit, if you'd like to learn more about the various threats to your privacy and what can be done about them, do have a look at our friend Database's article here. It will provide you with a very vivid image of what's at stake when it comes to you and your data and the steps you can take to protect it - including getting a proven and reliable VPN like Windscribe.
While we could go into the weeds as to what to do with each individual service and their respective post-mortem options, we'd rather let our friends at Epilogue walk you through the process.
Epilogue allows Canadian users to produce simple and smart online wills that are legally binding. An entirely free standalone Social Media Will generator is also offered, which allows you to create a list of detailed instructions that can then be shared with your family and friends as you see fit. As a bonus, should you wish to take advantage of Epilogue's services, you can use the promo code WINDSCRIBE15 to get $15 off your Epilogue will.
In conclusion, most of us are too busy being entertained by what's trending now to entertain the notion of what happens when we stop trending in our own lives. Granted, it is a grim subject, often accompanied by wisps of existential dread that might linger a little too long - but tending to your digital legacy now will allow those you might leave behind to experience it in the way that you want them to.