Digital Death

Picture of By Rita Alves

By Rita Alves

Life often seems unpredictable, but something we can always count on is that eventually, we are all going to die. And what’s more, just like life itself, death entails legal and administrative complications. In the physical world, various laws and regulations exist to simplify things for the living but when it comes to digital death, things get complicated. To make life easier for your loved ones, interrupt the denial of your mortality for a second, and join me in the exploration of what it means to die in the digital age.

Digital Death 

After the passing of a loved one, together with the attempt to deal with grief, comes the distribution of possessions and all the legal complications which come along with it. In the physical world, this often means hours spent going through attics and speaking to lawyers. But when it comes to our digital life, this can be a bit more complex.

Think about your digital presence for one second – email accounts, social media profiles, dating apps, streaming platforms, online banking, blogs, cryptocurrency. The list goes on. Now, do you remember the account details for all of these? And most importantly, is there any way anyone you know could access them in the event of your passing? The answer for many is no, and this poses an array of issues to those we leave behind. From losing access to precious memories to receiving painful birthday reminders or even having the accounts of those who have passed hacked. So, how can we prevent this?

Digital Wills

The global nature of the digital world and the lack of consistent and intuitive legislation can be deemed the culprits for the challenge of digital deaths. Not every country has guidelines establishing how to deal with digital possessions once a user dies. And even when specific measures exist, these aren’t necessarily applicable to every digital platform.

To try to solve the issue, different companies have developed targeted regulations for their associated platforms. Facebook allows users to choose a legacy contact, who has limited access to their profile, or to have their account deleted once their death is confirmed. Similarly, Instagram allows the removal or memorialization of one’s account by another user, if the latter can legally prove that the former is deceased. Google, on the other hand, allows one to choose to share certain data regarding their account with specific people, after a certain period of inactivity.

However, not every platform has clear or satisfactory options. Spotify, for example, allows users to delete the profile of significant others, but it does not grant access to the latter’s account in case of their death – not easily, at least. This means that private playlists, which could be a source of comfort for the bereaved, are likely to be lost.

A way to get around the complications and variety of options is utilizing password managers, which give access to personal information to predetermined legacy contacts in the case of one’s passing. The disclosure usually happens after a period of inactivity, and it’s confirmed through multiple phone calls or emails.   

To further solidify your wishes, it is advisable to indicate how you want your online presence to be dealt with and by whom. Though some platforms allow this to be indicated, depending on your relationship with the legacy contact, it is possible for others to legally contest this.

The existential questions 

If we do not clearly state what we would like to occur to our online life, questions such as who owns our data, who ‘deserves’ to access it, and to what extent, are likely to arise.

If we do not clearly state what we would like to occur to our online life, questions such as who owns our data, who ‘deserves’ to access it, and to what extent, are likely to arise. Maybe you would like to access YouTube playlists of your deceased partner to find comfort in the videos that entertained them or the music that accompanied their daily routines. But unlike a box of CDs which one may stumble upon, these ‘assets’ are placed on a platform often owned by a private company with specific privacy laws. So, without clear instructions from the deceased user, to what extent does a loved one have the right to access this data? And to what extent should a company stand in the way?

What now?

The concept of digital death is relatively new, and despite the existing rules and tools to facilitate it, there is still room for improvement. Clear guidelines and laws must exist to give one more control over their demise and to help provide closure for the living. Thinking about our mortality is an arguably unideal way to spend time, but to make it easier for those we leave behind, it is necessary. So, verify your passwords, and review your options.

Now, you may go back to your daily denial.


Cover:  Daniel Putzer

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