Earlier this year, I received a Facebook notification that it was a recently deceased friend’s birthday. The notification both confused and saddened me, reminding me of the loss of that individual. I’m not the only one who has had this happen to them. This is becoming more of a common occurrence, as people leave behind digital data when they die, including social media accounts, digital files, passwords, emails, and other information.
With more people on the internet, the problem of what to do with these deceased accounts and data will be a predicted hot topic in the next few years. This issue is already significantly growing, as according to a 2018 Nature paper, the rate of “dead” profiles on Facebook has been estimated to increase by 1.7 million per year, just in the U.S. alone. The Oxford Internet Institute predicted a similarly bleak future; by 2070, Facebook will have more people with “dead” accounts than living ones.
Combined with the increase in “deceased data” (data from a deceased person), virtual funerals and traditions are rising, mainly due to COVID-19. Businesses like GatheringUs offer virtual funerals or memorial services for deceased loved ones. While these virtual events allow us to remember our friends and family, these events can be jarring for some, and unfortunately, are only the beginning when it comes to managing the things left behind.
This problem of managing deceased data has led to various business opportunities for some start-ups. Companies like Afternote and Bcelebrated are working to create digital memorials for loved ones using old data. Others, like Funeralwise, help individuals navigate what to do with a deceased relative’s data.
“Funeralwise is used to help people capably navigate their funeral experiences,” explained Managing Partner Richard Paskin in an interview with The Debrief. “We help them ‘Prepare, Celebrate, and Remember.'”
Funeralwise is not the first company to do this, as even Facebook has adapted their user to have a “legacy” contact to manage a deceased account. This has led to the rise of the “digital afterlife,” where an individual’s data is still used after they’ve passed on.
The digital afterlife is even becoming part of popular culture, with the Amazon Prime show Upload, where people’s souls can get uploaded into a digital space for an ongoing payment plan. While this is both satirical and fascinating, it also hints at other issues that our society may have to deal with.
One of the biggest questions regarding the digital afterlife is: how do you know if a person has died? With its billions of users, Facebook can’t check to see if a user has passed away to notify a legacy contact or shut down the account. Other companies have begun developing tools to make this process easier.
“When we first started, the idea was to build a dead man’s switch that would periodically check on a user’s well-being,” said entrepreneur and software developer Albert Brückman, creator of the companies Meminto and EmergencyWP.
“In the event of death, it could then notify certain people, send messages and sensitive information such as account data, etc.” The EmergencyWP program can easily plug into a WordPress site and notify an individual of an emergency or death. This helps make the transition and management of deceased data smoother and stops any notifications from the deceased’s social media accounts or other channels.
You may think that the dead’s data can’t be worth that much, but a 2013 survey by security company McAfee found that the average value of an individual’s digital assets was $35,000. That begins to add up quickly when looking at thousands, if not millions, of users. No wonder many companies can make a killing in this morbid, yet fascinating industry. Meminto has found its niche in using AI technology via a smart assistant to log memories using personal questions with a user. These questions, along with pictures, stories, and other assets, get printed into a memory book, spanning both the digital and tangible realities we live in.
While companies are currently thriving in this industry, there are few regulations and lots of questions. According to Brückman: “Our world is a hundred times more global than it was 20 years ago when social networks had their beginnings. However, many laws do not reflect this at all in their respective places in the world. Politics lags behind technology (which is understandable since it is not always clear what will prevail) and mainly just reacts to the ever-changing tech landscape.
When it comes to the topic of ‘digital afterlife,’ it feels like the smallest thought is given to it since it no longer affects you. With the rise of dead accounts, the digital afterlife and all its issues will hopefully become more prevalent in policy and regulation.
Some experts have proposed that the privacy issue be handled similarly to the International Council of Museums, which sets the rules for handling human remains. Under these regulations, digital data would have to be handled with dignity and could not be used for profit. Instead, it would be seen as an entity of its own, holding inherent value. It is unlikely that these regulations will be adopted, but they may provide essential guidelines for future policies on the digital afterlife.
The transition to digital funerals and digital “cemeteries” (of sorts) will be easier for some than for others. “The next generation facing these issues are the Baby Boomers,” explained Paskin. “Boomers are web-savvy, and many are taking advantage of these online resources. Their children will ultimately be responsible for making their parent’s funeral arrangements and handling the many post-funeral matters. These younger generations grew up in a digital world and will naturally go online to handle these tasks.”
Kenna Castleberry is the Science Communicator at JILA and a staff writer at The Quantum Daily and The Deep Tech Insider. She has written various pieces on diversity in deep tech, covering stories from underrepresented communities, as well as discussing how science fiction contributes to the reputations of deep technologies. Follow her on Twitter @kennaculture