AN ASSET

Put your data in order before you die

Legislation has failed to keep pace with technological change.

In Summary
  • If it makes sense to guard your data while you are alive, then it should make even more sense to guard it after you are gone.
  • One way is to include this information in one’s will. Just like other forms of assets, one can legally bequeath their digital assets, including their control, to a third party.

Benjamin Franklin once said that only two things are certain in life: Death and taxes. Death is inevitable. To the ones left behind, death is painful, confusing and certainly filled with too many uncertainties.

Recently, death struck close to home. It took away a 24-year-old intelligent, talented and beautiful Nairobi lady, who was humble, kind and graceful. With her sudden passing, I dug up every picture and online interaction we had ever had just to remind me of her beautiful soul. Her social media accounts, blog, and texts messages were all still there.

When a 21st-century citizen dies, they often leave behind a trove of posts, private messages and personal information on everything, from Instagram to phone and text records. Who owns this data, and whose responsibility is it to protect the privacy of the deceased?

The amount of data we are generating as more of our lives are lived digitally through social media is growing at an exponential rate. Equally, with the advent of wearable technology, autonomous cars and the ever-increasing number of cameras watching us, our personal data is being recorded, measured and stored at an extremely high rate by private companies and organisations. Personal data has become a highly marketable and commercialised asset.

There are numerous reasons for wanting to get an understanding and control over what happens to our data after we die. One might want to ensure private information remains private after passing on, or perhaps make it possible for those left behind to benefit from digital assets with value, either tangible or sentimental.

Unfortunately, as in many other areas, legislation has failed to keep pace with technological change. While we might have some (laughable) rules on what happens to our data while we are still alive, there are no consistent rules about what happens to all this data after someone’s death or who should have access to it. The question thus is, do we have data privacy rights even after death?

As Africans, our culture dictates that we shun any talk of preparing for death as it results in death coming sooner rather than later. However, considering the importance and relevance of data in this era, it would only be wise if people set their digital assets and accounts in order before they die.

Facebook will turn a user’s page into a memorial after death and users can appoint a legacy contact to look after their account. Verified immediate family members may also request the removal of a loved one’s account. Google, on the other hand, has an opt-in setting that allows you to have your data deleted once you pass away.

Additionally, Google offers an Inactive Account Manager service, which allows you to designate someone who will be given permission to access parts of your account if your account isn’t logged into for a period (usually 3 to 18 months).

Evidently, these options are not available to all platforms and they only work if someone implements the required settings while they are still alive. For most digital and social media platforms, there is usually no mechanism for those left behind to notify them that a loved one has passed away (unless you are a known personality) so they will presumably continue to handle their accounts and sites in exactly the same way they did when its owner was alive.

With regards to work emails and data stored in company assets, the law is equally unclear as to how they will be treated upon an employee’s death. However, most company policies make provision that such is to be treated as company assets and will be owned and used by the company as it deems fit.

As Africans, our culture dictates that we shun any talk of preparing for death as it results in death coming sooner rather than later. However, considering the importance and relevance of data in this era, it would only be wise if people set their digital assets and accounts in order before they die.

One way is to include this information in one’s will. Just like other forms of assets, one can legally bequeath their digital assets, including their control, to a third party. If it makes sense to guard your data while you are alive, then it should make even more sense to guard it after you are gone. At the very least, be aware of social media policies, and your company’s policies regarding your data upon your demise.

Rest in peace Steffie.