Digital Inheritance

The data that makes up people’s online identities lies scattered across the virtual landscape, consisting of emails, photos, social network site interactions and more. Such data can have emotional, financial and intellectual significance. Yet the awkward question of what happens to this data when a user dies lies unanswered. There are three main components to this open question, which this research seeks to address:

  1. How do online applications need to change to allow users to nominate data inheritors? There is no obvious mechanism for the bequest of one’s digital artefacts. It is subject to the terms of use of individual web sites and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), buried far down in the small print or not dealt with at all. In life, we own our personal data, no matter where it is held.
  2. How do online applications need to change to facilitate inheritance of personal data in the inevitable event of a user’s death? After death, ownership of the deceased’s personal data is a grey area. This can result in distress and inconvenience for the bereaved as they struggle to retrieve precious online artefacts.
  3. What are the boundaries for the acceptable creation, ownership and management of online memorials which re-purpose inherited data, appropriate to UK cultural norms? We are already seeing spontaneous technology-based responses to death and loss emerging- e.g. – online memorials. Many are respectful and appropriate, yet some are not – and can cause further anguish to the bereaved as a result.

This research explores the bequest, inheritance and repurposing of personal data (such as emails, photos and social network site interactions) in the context of the death of technology users.

Funding Body

Wendy Moncur, Kathryn Orzech