Don’t forget to feed the cats

When I was a child a man called Charlie lived in the tiny cottage next door to my family home. He died when I was still quite young, but I remember him and his house vividly. The cottage really was tiny, and inside I had the feeling of being in some fantastical place. It felt very other worldly. Charlie shared the cottage with three cats, one of which we ended up taking care of after Charlie died. Charlie’s greatest fear was that he’d die alone at home, and that his cats would have him for dinner! It’s as a memorial to Charlie that I titled this blog Don’t forget to feed the cats. By the way, Charlie died at hospital in the end.

An image of Charlie's Cottage as it is today (screen grab from Google Street View)

An image of Charlie’s Cottage as it is today (screen grab from Google Street View)

At the start of the special topics module I made a list of fleeting ideas that I’d had and was considering pursuing as my topic. One of these I described as after death, digital legacies – and it’s something I’m still very curious about. The question is how do you deal with digital assets, when somebody dies? There is of course lots of debate around what denotes an ‘asset’, and a multitude of different ways of applying legal frameworks in different ways (which varies greatly depending on where you are, and what the nature of the ‘asset’ is).

Governments debate about legislation, most recently there is an ongoing debate about the ‘right to be forgotten’. An interesting story emerged this week with regard to 17-year-old Paris Brown (employed by the police) had Tweeted inappropriate material earlier in her teens. The BBC ask – quite legitimately if you ask me – could the right to be forgotten help? But, back to death… currently most online services only refer to what happens on the event of a users death in their terms of service and privacy documents. In Facebook’s terms and conditions, you grant them a license to use your content indefinitely, but these days they do cooperate when users die by memorialising pages (which is a handy thing: 2.89m Facebook users were predicted to die in 2012). In 2004/5 the mother of a dead marine took Yahoo to court (and won) in order to gain access to his email account (this was inconsistent with the Yahoo terms of service). These are just a few examples; things get more complicated if consider blogs you might run, web email accounts, online currencies, access to banking, maybe even what happens to your Bitcoin estate after you die! Despite all the confusion, at least death itself is relatively clear cut.

Demonstrating that these kind of issues are becoming more important to both users and service providers, Google yesterday announced their Inactive Account Manager – quickly referred to as the Google Death Manager – which is designed to allow you to decide what to do with your data that Google holds, in the event that your account becomes inactive. It’s pretty neat, allowing you to chose individual services, a list of people to inform (each of whom are confirmed via text messages), and even the ability to set up an email auto responder.

As more and more of the digital services we all use move to the cloud, and those services become interconnected, the issue becomes increasingly complex. My follow HighWire-er Barney Craggs has recently written some interesting blogs about the grey area between big data and personal data which I recommend reading, a particularly neat idea Barney talks about is smart data. When referring to smart data, Barney describes it as:

the gathering of only that data which is truly needed to fulfil the purpose, data which is held only for as long as is needed..

Because managing your data, and maybe even ‘deleting’ yourself from the internet, is quite a difficult thing to achieve and this seems particularly pertinent when considering what happens to data after its creator, or owner, or custodian.. ceases to be alive. I think Barney’s ideas are relevant not only to data per-se, but also to services. We can assume most online services do involve an element of data, but they also have an inherent meaning, related to whatever the service is. This makes considering how you want a service to deal with your death a more involved affair than simply considering the data that lies behind a service alone.

Although this landscape is not a steady one, with legislation almost certain to go through several evolutions in the coming years, and service providers constantly tweaking their terms of service and approaches, I believe we have the technology available to begin to implement a kind of digital rights protocol that could provide a framework for services to comply with their users posthumous desires. Digital lockers or safes do exist, and can go someway to dealing with this, but in their current state they are not a holistic solution.

While thinking about this I arrived at a vision is of an internet ‘death authority’ (DA) that any person, and any service, can register themselves with. The DA would have two core functions, firstly to have an ‘notification’ mechanism for recording whether somebody is alive or not, and secondly to be a repository for holding instructions relating to what participating services should do in the event of a death. For the notification mechanism an API would have to be accessible so that the relevant authorities could plug into it. In the UK this could be an electronic link from the General Register Office. When somebody dies, the GRO connects to the DA’s API and the records are updated to show that the subject has passed away, allowing the second part of the system to swing into action.

The second part of the is the harder to imagine, but I’m sure a workable standard could be developed, with existing technologies, that would be fit for purpose. The way I imagine it working, you’d need to be able to update settings on a service to reflect what you want to happen to your data, on that service, when you die. The settings would have to be updated on the service itself but a record of your elected settings would also have to be viewable at the DA – so you can see all of your choices in a single place. So the API to facilitate this system would just need to have a way of describing what settings were chosen on any given site, and then communicate those choices back to the DA.

When the inevitable (for all of us!) happens, the each online service related to the deceased would be informed by the DA of the sad news. Each service would then be able to update their data as per your wishes, whether that be deleting everything, memorialising your facebook page, or posting a beyond the grave Tweet to say so long and thanks for all the fish. Feasibly the DA would be accessible by your probate lawyer who will, to some extent, be aware of what online services you used, and what your wishes were with regard to each one (this would also serve as a tool to monitor whether you wishes were actually being carried out).

Obviously this would only work in regions where deaths are routinely registered, and for people who sign up to the DA, and for services that subscribe. This may seem an unlikely proposition, but as our lives are even more entwined with online services I think it will become increasingly relevant for all of our tomorrows, and is something that could be well addressed today. I hope it is addressed, because I for one want to be able to plan for my digital demise with confidence, transparently, and without having to spend my life reading terms of service small print.

PS Selina Ellis Gray, also a HighWire PhD candidate, is doing some really interesting work in this area, specifically looking at bereavement and how it manifests itself digitally, check it out.