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What Happens To Your Digital Footprint When You Die?

Do you become a ghost in the machine?

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Francesca Benson

Copy Editor and Staff Writer

clockNov 28 2022, 16:41 UTC
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Have you thought about what will happen to your digital data after you die? Image credit: James Rodrigues, iro-hideki/iStock

This article first appeared in Issue 2 of our new free digital magazine CURIOUS. 

When you die, your persona can live on in the form of data. This is especially true if you’re active on social media (and let’s be real, that’s most of us), with your personal data forming a digital footprint that remains even after death.

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The dead could outnumber the living on Facebook alone by the year 2060, according to some estimates. A 2019 study found that between 1.4 billion and 4.9 billion Facebook profiles of deceased members could exist by 2100 depending on the platform's rate of growth.

However, it seems that many people don’t understand what happens to their social media data after death. A YouGov poll of 2,185 people in 2015 showed that 27 percent of participants didn’t know, 20 percent thought it was inherited by next of kin, 36 percent thought it was owned by the social media company, and 17 percent thought nobody owns it. When asked who could access their accounts if something were to happen to them, 52 percent said nobody could.

So, how can you manage your posts posthumously?

What happens to my social media pages after I die? 

Rather than letting your Facebook account live on in limbo, “You can choose to either appoint a legacy contact to look after your memorialized account or have your account permanently deleted from Facebook,” says Facebook’s help center.

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A Facebook legacy contact is someone on your Friends list who you nominate to take care of your profile after you die, which you can do if you are aged 18 or older. They can either be the caretaker of the memorial account, or choose to delete it entirely. With proof that they are an authorized representative of the deceased, they can also download content shared from the account.

Facebook also gives advice on how to delete a deceased person’s Facebook account if you are not a legacy contact. Proof that they are dead (obituaries or memorial cards) and proof of authority (a will, birth certificate, power of attorney, or estate letter) are required.

“If you don't choose to have your account permanently deleted, it will be memorialized if we become aware of your passing.”

So, what are memorialized Facebook pages? They are marked by the word “Remembering” next to the person’s name, and still contain their posts and photos. Birthday reminders or friend suggestions won’t appear for memorialized accounts, and nobody can log into the account, even the legacy contact.

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A legacy contact can, however, write a post to pin to the memorialized profile, update the profile and cover photos, control who can post tributes to the profile, and determine who can see them.

Instagram, like Facebook, is owned by the company Meta. Therefore, their options are similar: Your account can be memorialized or removed via a valid request. Removal requests require proof that you are an immediate family member or can act on behalf of the deceased, such as birth or death certificates.

Memorial Instagram accounts will also display “Remembering” by the user’s name, and won’t appear on the Explore page. No changes can be made to the posts, comments, profile photo, followers, or accounts the memorialized account follows.

According to Twitter, “In the event of the death of a Twitter user, we can work with a person authorized to act on behalf of the estate, or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.”

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You can request to deactivate Twitter accounts but will need to provide your connection to the deceased. To prevent false reports, Twitter requests a copy of the user’s death certificate and a copy of your ID.

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Neither Reddit nor TikTok have information or options for account memorialization, legacy contacts, or account deletion by loved ones. IFLScience contacted both for clarification but did not receive a response. TikTok does, however, state that “If an account remains inactive for 180 days or more, the username may be reset to a randomized numeric username,” which would apply to dead TikTok users.

It’s unlikely you’re going to be job-hunting from beyond the grave, and seeing the profile of a late loved one might upset users, so LinkedIn allows you to report users as deceased and forms on the site allow requests for account deletion or memorialization.

Memorialization and deletion requests require the deceased’s date of passing and a link to their obituary. Loved ones must clarify their relationship to the deceased and submit legal documents proving they have the authority to act on the user’s behalf.

What happens to my personal data after I die?

Data Protection legislation only applies to an “identified or identifiable natural person”, so in theory, if you die, any data protection obligations die with you.

As the most popular domain on the web, Google is most likely sitting on a vast goldmine of your personal data. As such, Google says that “People expect Google to keep their information safe, even in the event of their death.”

Google’s Inactive Account Manager is one way to take control of your data after death. It either deletes or sends data to a trusted contact after a certain period of inactivity.

Google states that “We look at several signals to understand whether you are still using your Google Account. These include your last sign-ins, your recent activity in My Activity, usage of Gmail (e.g., the Gmail app on your phone), and Android check-ins.”

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If you die without setting this up, loved ones can request Google to close your account or receive data from it. However, Google won’t provide login details to the account.

Microsoft accounts will be closed automatically after being inactive for two years. Microsoft needs to be served with a non-criminal subpoena or court order to consider whether to release a user’s information to another party.

For Apple users, a legacy contact can be added to an Apple ID from iOS 15.2, iPadOS 15.2, and macOS 12.1, and will have access to the data in the account after the user’s death. This access will require the access key generated when they were chosen, and the user’s death certificate. Legacy contacts can also opt to delete the Apple ID.

However, legacy contacts cannot access in-app purchases or licensed media bought by the user, the user’s payment information, or information stored in their Keychain password manager. Apple also cannot unlock devices with passcodes, as they are protected by passcode encryption.

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People who are not the Apple ID’s legacy contact can still request access with the proper legal documentation, which varies by region.

What happens to my cryptocurrency after I die?

If you want your investments to be passed on to your loved ones when you die, it’s important to set up a plan to ensure your coins don’t go to the grave with you. 

In fact, accountant and blockchain asset expert Kate Waltman told Time earlier this year that “It’s estimated that the total number of Bitcoin in existence [capped at 21 million] won’t ever be 21 million because so many early adopters of Bitcoin have either died (without succession planning) or lost their wallet keys and can’t recover their funds.”

Some people advise writing down your passcode or seed phrase for your wallet and locking it away in a secure place that your loved ones know about. 

Post-mortem privacy

Much of our private lives are now carried out via the transfer of data. This poses a concern for platforms and users alike: how private can this potentially very personal data actually be?

In the US, there are currently no laws that specifically extend to “post-mortem privacy” protection. Most terms and services for things like social media accounts set up licenses and rights between you and the company, which may fall to the company if you die. For example, Instagram reserves the right to use your photos to advertise the platform, which could continue after you die.

“The rule of thumb is that you own your data, it's your property, basically. But you co-own it with whatever platform you're uploading into,” associate senior lecturer at Uppsala University’s Department of Government Carl Öhman told Popular Mechanics in March 2022. However, he explained that as dead people can’t hold property, companies become the data’s sole owner after death.

As Öhman said: “What happens to our digital remains is not just an ethical matter of ‘who do I want to have access to my pictures on Instagram,’ but it's very much a political discussion of who should be able to control our collective narratives of the digital past.”

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CURIOUS magazine is a new digital magazine from IFLScience featuring interviews, experts, deep dives, fun facts, news, book excerpts, and much more. Issue 5 is out now.


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