Exploring Digital Ethics with Elaine Kasket

Nick Gold 9 May 2019

As part of my 'In Conversation With' series, I recently sat down with Dr Elaine Kasket . She is a psychologist, author, and expert on death in the digital era. You can see the full video here !

Before meeting Elaine, I was excited and curious about her expertise. Personally, I'd never considered what would happen to my data when I die!

It was fascinating to hear Elaine explain why we are now at this critical juncture. She can explain it much better than I can! But to set the scene. What happens to your Facebook account after you die? Will you receive emails to your Gmail for the rest of infinity?

Under contract law, I learnt from Elaine, privacy ceases at the point of death. Yet, big tech treats the deceased account holder and their data almost with the same contractual reverence as they would when this person was alive. So, they end up prioritising that concept over the wishes of the next of kin. I told you it gets complicated!

Elaine didn't just educate me on data after death, but started a discussion about ethics. The topic of death is always a tricky one, but when it's tied to data, it seems like we know even less about how to go about it. Elaine explained to me that the onus should be on the big techs here, but, as you can imagine, they are a difficult opponent to play ball with!

Elaine explained to me that there is currently no digital rule book for death. And, if there were to be one, it isn't for a profit-making coporation like Facebook to make. Social media are turning onto the issue - for example, Facebook recently announced that they will be using AI to prevent troubling notifications like birthday reminders being sent out, but a small change such as this is still controversial. For some people, a birthday reminder triggers devastation. For others, it is a warm reminder. Grief has no rule book either!

My conversation with Elaine was unlike any conversation I've ever had before. I have been part of many discussions over the years about big techs, AI, the rise of social media, and so forth. But what that landscape will look like when Facebook (eventually) has more dead users than alive, hadn't passed through my mind. I learnt so much and was left wanting more...picking up her book, All Ghosts In The Machine: Illusions of Immortality in the Digital Age, sounds like a good option!

Of course the lasting question is: what should I be doing? Should my will include my social media passwords, and so on?

Indeed, there's no rule book - and Facebook definitely won't share your passwords with your family after you die! But Elaine advises to 'clean your digital house' frequently. This means, saving and storing the things that are important to you, and looking into getting a physical copy of the really important things. If there's anything you would absolutely like to pass onto the next generation, getting a hard copy is the only guarantee. After all, we cannot rely on corporations to safeguard our data.

It all sounds like a Black Mirror episode, but I have to admit, Elaine's expertise have left me querying many things I hadn't before!

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