Reprinted From Forbes Magazine.
When you die, you’ll leave behind a digital presence – dead data, or a graveyard in the cloud.
The only things certain in life are death and data. Data After You Die?
Every year, Facebook cheerfully suggests I reconnect with some friends on their birthdays. I’d certainly like to, but there’s a glaring complication: these particular friends are dead.
The grieving process being one of the most human of them all, it naturally dredges up all kinds of complex, contemplative thoughts. Loss transcends other divisions, real or imagined, because whether we want to think about death or not, it is something that affects us all.
Earlier this year, Cisco published its Visual Networking Index – estimating that by 2015, annual global IP traffic will pass the zettabyte threshold. Much of this represents the activities and movements of real, living people. Short of a global catastrophe, these imprints will remain online long after these people are dead.
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Historically, an executor of a will is entrusted to sort and delegate items of interest. With so many of our possessions and details of our personal lives now finding their home in the digital realm, ownership, moral, and sociological questions are raised: who does your digital life belong to, who should have access to it, and where does society go from here?
No matter how unpalatable, the subject of death is something businesses will have to wake up to and tackle head on, according to William Beresford, co-founder of data specialist Beyond Analysis.
“When you register for Facebook, how inclined are you to fill in a contact email for someone when you die?” he asks.
There are mechanisms in place for removing a dead user’s profile, but in Facebook’s case you will need to provide a birth and death certificate, and prove that you are the lawful representative of the deceased. Hardly a pleasant or high priority task.
“It’s a complex idea, and it’s not the sort of thing you think about when you’re living your digital life,” Beresford says. “There are interesting challenges: how do I filter my personal digital existence? I went online in ’92, hopefully when I die there will be 50 or 60 years worth of digital history. It’s a potential minefield.
“We’re going to have to find a way to consolidate our digital existence, which currently is completely fragmented. There’s going to have to be some way where you can collect that information in one place, or know that’s where you can access it – who does it come down to, and who would you rather have it?”
The dead have historically not had much of a right to privacy. But bridging the gulf between our digital and physical lives could change this, at least according to Gavin Llewellyn, partner at law firm Davenport Lyons.
“Increasingly, we are seeing companies encroaching on people’s rights of privacy,” Llewellyn says. “Google has imposed a contractual term into its Gmail service to enable it to scan emails in order to produce targeted advertising. It is doubtful that many users were aware of this when Google’s T&Cs were altered.
“While the letter of the law may be on Google’s side, privacy rights are a fundamental human right and should not be able to be waived without users being made aware of what is happening to their information,” Llewellyn says. “Greater notice should arguably be given of an intention to invade people’s privacy rights, and it shouldn’t matter whether those people are live or dead.”
Duncan White, co-founder of data exchange platform Handshake, believes the way data is treated in 2013 is illogical and almost criminal.
“Data brokerages take your data, sell it, and make money from it,” White says. “That’s crazy. It’s like saying I’ll take your car, sell it, profit from it – it’s theft, for want of a better word. People are taking assets that are rightfully yours and are making money out of it.”
Data is valuable, but the businesses that control it play a numbers game to retain their own value. For example, companies like Facebook and Twitter count on the sheer scale of the data they generate to appease the markets. “To suddenly take away half of their users would slash market value,” White says. “In essence, if for whatever reason people aren’t active, their data is useless, but they’re aggregating it all and monetizing it apropos.”
White compares the amount of dead data floating around the web to the man-made islands of trash that pollute our oceans.
“There must be vast tracts of unclaimed data just floating around, taking up exabytes and exabytes, that nobody is actually doing anything with,” White says. “Data is very cheap to collect, and the whole move to big data is around volume and collecting data from everywhere… The way big data is going, so much is generated it becomes value-less, and floats off into the sea.”
If data is going to waste now, then what are some possible applications for the future?
Former CTO of British Telecom and independent analyst Peter Cochrane is optimistic about the potential for dead-people’s data to provide us with valuable insights after they have left this world. ”Some are arguing because we don’t write letters anymore, we won’t know as much about people as we did in the past. I think we’ll know even more,” Cochrane says.
“Compare Stephen Hawking and Isaac Newton. Newton wrote lots of interesting letters and people wrote interesting letters to him,” Cochrane says. “Some of those survived and they form the basis of our understanding of him and his life. But if we look at Stephen Hawking, we’re going to have a legacy of all his emails, electronic copies of all the scientific papers he wrote, his Facebook account, and any other social media he had – so in actual fact we’ll have a much wider and deeper understanding of the man and his legacy.”
Cochrane asks me to stop and count how many transmitters I have around me. There are a lot.
“For me it’s over 18,” Cochrane says, going on to list not just his mobile phone, laptop or iPad, but his car, his car keys, Wi-Fi hubs, and the controllers for every electronic device in his home.
“There’s just a huge amount of stuff now that leaves a ‘slime trail’ of digital presence,” Cochrane says. “Wherever we go, we leave a slime trail. We inadvertently log on to Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 3G, 4G, and this leaves an indelible record of where we’ve gone. What we do is recorded and saved. And so there is a huge amount of data about us.”
All of this data we leave behind – this ‘slime trail’ – brings up many more questions: why are Peter and I talking? Will we ever meet, and if so, where? Why? Who do we both know?
“That’s very interesting commercial information,” he says. And with the emergence of technologies like Google Glass and Microsoft’s Mylifebits, the world is progressing to a point where your entire day can be summed up and searchable in minutes. ”A digital slime trail is being established. We’re all leaving a vast database of who we were, what we did, how we contributed to society, what diseases we suffered – all of those things. And that is going to be mined in the future. No doubt about it.
Cochrane believes sci-fi intrigues such as talking to the dead, using advanced combinations of artificial intelligence and data gathering, could well be possible.
He cites discussions he had a “long time ago”, speaking with leading scientists about capturing their lectures, their work, and how it could be feasible for a virtual presence of the deceased to answer questions, based on what they knew, how they think, and in line with their life experiences. “That seems to me a fairly reasonable and tenable endpoint,” Cochrane says. “All the components for this exist, this is no scientific hypothesis, this is an engineering challenge.”
“I lost both my parents in fairly tragic situations, and my wife in an even worse situation. I often ponder what I’d do if I’d got them actually embedded in a machine – would I choose to talk to them? When you lose somebody, especially a parent or your wife, you tend on occasions to talk to them. They’re still with you. They never get older. Sometimes, you will talk to them. I just wonder where that will go. I can imagine it being incredibly comforting and upsetting at the same time. The technology to do this – the price will tumble, the availability will rocket, and you will be able to do this not just for the ‘special’ people in society, but for everybody, if you so wish. People will have a choice. I’m expecting this in my children’s lifetime.”
Visions of intelligent, post-death communication may be strikingly lofty. But developments in the modern world which we now take for granted would have seemed unimaginable just fifty years ago. In the nearer term, collating data on health could provide benefits to humanity as a whole.
Technologies like IBM Watson can cope with a vastly larger number of variables than people, and potentially make better judgment calls than humans in the case of medical analysis. Companies like 23AndMeare already focusing on genetic analysis, while Google-backed Calico made headlinesby taking on the ageing process itself. Just as organ donation can help further research now, so too will charting your life and, ultimately, your deathA lot of the information about the people who’ve died early will be gathered, and an analysis will be done to figure out if there was a common strand,” Cochrane says. “Why did they die early? What was it?”
“I can just imagine, in my children’s lifetime, there being a huge industry heading in this direction,” Cochrane says.
The unprecedented rise and rise of our digital lives, combined with our increasing reliance on the connected world, pose questions society will have to answer together. As our on- and offline presences converge, it is arguable we’re living in a transitional phase. Finding ourselves at the foot of a steep learning curve, there are debates to be had about just how we want our digital shadows to be used, who they are owned by, and what purposes they can serve, whether we are around to have that input or not.