There were a couple of interesting stories in the papers the past week or so about our digital afterlife. The first that hit home was one that appeared in the New York Times about people getting email messages from deceased friends inviting them to join Facebook.
I too have a deceased friend who was an avid Facebook user from whom I again "received" a message just last week inviting me to reconnect with him. The first time I received the invite, I was a bit taken aback, the next few times I was annoyed, but recently I have actually not minded too much since it reminds me of Art and the fun times we had. I haven't deleted Art's email to me for the same reason - every so often I go back and read them to remember my friend's life.
With Facebook reaching the 500 million mark (some 22 percent of all Internet users), and with those over the age of 65 adopting Facebook faster than any other age group, the issue of what to do with the Facebook pages of those who have died is becoming a more important one.
The Times story says that Facebook "now recognizes the importance of finding an appropriate way to preserve those pages as a place where the mourning process can be shared online."
Facebook does have a way of informing it that someone had passed away, but the Times says, this option is not well publicized. The company is also testing software to search for members who have died, but the problem is that the software can be spoofed.
In one case where this happened, the person had a hard time convincing Facebook that he was actually alive.
There was also another interesting in-depth story in the New York Times that had bearing on our digital afterlife that was about how information about us on the Internet never dies. The story, "The Web Means the End of Forgetting," describes how past personal information captured on the Net can come back like virtual poltergeists to haunt us today.
The Times, for example, describes how a 25-year old teacher in training at a high school in Pennsylvania was denied her teaching degree because she had posted a photo from a party on MySpace showing her in a pirate's hat and (legally) drinking from a plastic cup four years earlier. The photo was labeled "Drunken Pirate."
After discovering her page (how wasn't mentioned), the dean at the university where the woman was enrolled denied the woman her teaching degree, saying that the photo was "unprofessional" and was somehow promoting drinking to her potential future students.
The woman sued in US Federal District Court, but lost the case, because the Times says, the woman "was a public employee whose photo didn't relate to matters of public concern" and her photo was therefore, not protected speech. The court ruling can be found here.
The Times story also cites several other examples where, to an individual, their apparently innocuous on-line posting later resulted in their getting fired or even denied entry into the US.
The story goes on to describe how people who are targets of personal attacks on the Internet can try to get back their reputation, as well as how those who post true but what proves later to be embarrassing material can try to limit their use or damage.
As the Times story notes, "... many people aren't worried about false information posted by others - they're worried about true information they've posted about themselves when it is taken out of context or given undue weight. And defamation law doesn't apply to true information or statements of opinion."
The story says that maybe what we need are expiration dates on information on the Internet. It describes how researchers at the University of Washington are creating something they call "Vanish" where electronic data can be set to 'self-destruct' after a specified period of time without user action.
Again, if you have the time (it is 13 pages long), the Times article is worth the read.
One final aspect of the digital afterlife that I worry will vanish but in an accidental manner, instead of on purpose, are all the passwords to the various "digital assets" making up my digital estate. I blogged a bit about the need to manage your digital estate last year.
I think I have been pretty good at ensuring that my family can easily find all the encrypted information needed to unlock my digital assets, but I must admit I have not been so good at telling my family how I want all my other digital assets (e.g., all my published writings, private email, etc.) kept and/or protected and for how long.
Some lawyers are now advocating that assignment of a "digital executor" for the purpose of carrying out your digital afterlife wishes. I hadn't thought about the idea before, but it sounds like one that might be useful.
Has any Risk Factor reader assigned a "digital executor" yet, and if so, what functions did you assign them?
Furthermore, I would like to hear from Risk Factor readers about the pros and cons on the idea of allowing people or organizations to place expiration dates on the information they put onto the Internet.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.