Google recently announced its inactive account manager. If you have a Google Account, this new manager essentially tells Google, “Assume I’ve died if I haven’t logged in after X days. And if I hit that number of days, destroy all data about me.” You can also tell Google not to destroy its data about you, but to authorize a list of other individuals to then access your Google account.
This might be welcome news to the executor of your estate who has to slog through the odious task of getting your creditors to go away as well as notifying friends, relatives, distant acquaintances and your LinkedIn.com colleagues that you are no more. Assuming Google follows through, if you choose to have its records about you destroyed sometime after your death, not only are you dead in the actual sense, but also dead in the digital sense, at least for data about you in Google.
It’s nice of Google to plan for your demise. Other companies out there are likely not to be so willing to delete data about you. The predominant companies in the online world though are figuring out ways to handle your electronic data after your physical demise. Facebook is trying out a way to let people memorialize a dead person’s Facebook account. Twitter has a convoluted process for decommissioning an account which in its current form will make your executor not even want to bother trying. Doubtless other social media and internet conglomerates will develop their own policies, but is likely your square Instagram pictures will still be out there somewhere in cyberspace centuries after you are dead. Technology is providing a way for us to become immortal, at least in the electronic sense, long after our bodies have succumbed to their finite limits.
Also likely being immortalized about you are many of those digital fingerprints you left. Which ads you clicked on. The dreck you purchased from eBay back in 2003. Your rantings in public forums and comments on Yahoo news articles. Maybe even the porn sites you visited and your account on ashleymadison.com. Also your credit history, your spending patterns as documented on mint.com, your family history as you charted it with Facebook’s family history app and maybe all that stuff you uploaded to your personal cloud. All there for others to pick over. If you think about it, you should feel aghast. I have heard unconfirmed reports that one of my grandfathers snuck out the back door frequently for some booty down the street, presumably unbeknownst to dear old grandma. No one can plausibly confirm or deny it, so I will choose to remember my grandpa as the genial guy who grossed me out when I went fishing with him and he sliced off the fish’s head.
Our generation won’t have plausible deniability. Some enterprising great granddaughter in 2100 may be sifting through open source big data warehouses and be able to trace that message to a lover you made on ashleymadison.com to your IP and computer when five minutes earlier you had sent out an email to a friend. So that’s the downside, but the real bummer is it is probably too late to do anything about it. Being humans we’re bound to have moral failings, it’s just that in the past they did not normally come to light, so the living assumed the best about us. The good news is that if you can keep the researchers from putting all these facts together until after you are dead then it will all be moot. Your ex and children may be shocked when they subsequently learn of your immoral behavior, but it won’t matter to you. I am guessing that an account on reputation.com isn’t going to quite cut it.
So your drunkenness, lecherousness, gambling addiction, wife beating and stash of pornography, or at least some part of it, will be available for those willing to look for it. It is not too hard to envision companies that will do this for profit. In fact, I can see a whole new business model built around electronic blackmail. (The blackmail.com domain, curiously, is owned but parked. I should probably make an offer on the domain.) Something like:
Dear Mr. John Jones,
We are aware that you are seeing two other women on the side, plus you have a gay lover you see on alternate Wednesdays. But no one needs to know because we won’t tell! We guarantee that we will not reveal this information about you for the low price of $1000 a year paid now, or low monthly installments of just $100 a month.
Otherwise we will be sending a summary of the information we have about you to gawker.com and Pastor Vleek at the United Methodist Church where you tithe on May 1st, along with proof of the veracity of certain claims we will make so they are beyond plausible deniability.
We accept Visa, Mastercard and Discover, or you can make payments confidentially with your PayPal account. Please visit my.blackmail.com and enter your special confidential access code 6f7gjk93! to initiate payment.
What’s the upside? Well, electronic immortality! Because there won’t be just blackmail.com, you will also want to hire memorializedforever.com. In the past you were memorialized with fading photographs and copies of handwritten letters, if that. In the future you will have the ability to let people see you in high fidelity. You will want to buy their high fidelity service, in which you will be recorded in high definition 3-D. The voice quality will be high fidelity too. Your future great, great grandchildren will feel like they really know that guy otherwise known as the carcass planted under the tombstone at Crestview Cemetery. If you want you can expound about your history, your feelings, your concerns or anything you want future generations to know about you. You can even pay for the three way backup service, where your high definition memorial is hosted in redundant cloud servers plus immortalized in a blocks of digital friendly material, which can be readily uploaded in the event of a catastrophic failure.
I hope this is what you want, but it’s all sort of moot. It’s happening and there is not much that can be done to stop it. There will probably be federal legislation at some point to at least regulate this business, but as a practical matter the internet is impossible to really police, so it will all be stored somewhere anyhow and available for a price.
As for me, when I die I would prefer to be really dead, just like dear old possibly lecherous grandpa. I won’t have that opportunity, but I will at least take the time to set my Google inactive account manager settings, as a courtesy to my wife who will probably clean up behind me and really hates paperwork.