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Some thoughts about tech

Dead in the Cloud

Since the expansion of Facebook and online storage issue is a rather new phenomenon, nobody can yet pinpoint to an appropriate solution in handling a dead user’s social media account. Only assumptions and confusion surround the issue. In fact, most people are still unaware of or simply not interested in what happens to our online data after death. Specifically, many people have yet to adopt the new Facebook Legacy feature. The problem is the user experience of the Legacy function. In order to designate a person to “inherit” your Facebook account when you die, you need to go into Security Settings and find the last function called “Legacy Contact.” Once you designate a person, you could send a default message saying “Hi [name], Facebook now lets people choose a legacy contact to manage their account if something happens to them: https://www.facebook.com/help/1568013990080948. Since you know me well and I trust you, I chose you. Please let me know if you want to talk about this.” Most people rarely log into security settings when using Facebook. Legacy Contact is in the very end of security settings and is hardly noticeable. Also, a Facebook message written in a serious tone and related to death seems a bit overwhelming to send. Facebook is a platform mostly used for social, entertaining purposes, and people are not inclined to talk about grave matters over Facebook message.

Google also has a similar feature that is tucked away and hardly used. Under Google Account settings page, you can find “Inactive Account Manager” where you can choose which data to be deleted, after 3, 6, 9, or 12 months of inactivity. You could also select “trusted contacts to receive data from some or all of the following services: +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube.”[1] The vague name and its complicated process to choose your digital legacy contact inhibit many users from adopting this feature. If these features were to be more pronounced, the two companies can require a user to designate a Legacy contact when he or she creates an account. I speculate that Facebook and Google intentionally did not draw attention to these features until they learn from dealing with enough dead user cases. Thus far, they do not want to turn away potential users and create more controversies over such as sensitive topic.

In terms of technology, even if a legacy contact has limited access to the dead user’ account, what is stored could remain the same. Just like how multiple users can access the same computer with different accounts, Facebook and Google could also have one “superuser”, the dead person, who has access to all photos, wall posts, messages and one Legacy contact that has limited access. On Facebook, you can choose whether your legacy contact can download a copy of what you shared on Facebook including posts, photos, videos, friend list, and info from the About section of the profile. It is not sure whether Facebook will permanently delete those data after the Legacy contact downloads a copy. If a user did not give permission to the Legacy contact to download a copy of what she shared, the Legacy contact will only be able to see photos that he or she posts. Perhaps each file has a code that describes who can access the file. When logged in, your accessibility will be compared with the code and either allow a certain file to be visible or hidden.

On the other hand, the Legacy Contact also provides an option to permanently delete your Facebook after you pass away. Unless someone sends a death certificate to Facebook, how would Facebook know that the account is of a living person or a dead person? This would require machine-learning techniques to configure patterns that indicate the death of the user. For example, there will be a very complicated algorithm that detects many different elements such as activity time and frequency, condolence messages, and IP address. However, as we know, algorithmic mistakes can lead to huge consequences. If Facebook were to falsely identify a living user as a deceased one and shut down his or her profile, the company could face serious charges.

[1] http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2013/04/plan-your-digital-afterlife-with.html

Jasmine OhComment