I’m going to be dealing with the final taboo, I hope that doesn’t make you uncomfortable.
The question at hand is what happens to our digital assets when we die, and how do we deal with the identity management issues intertwined with this?
So far it seems that this hasn’t been a problem large enough to deserve legislative and policy attention, but I suspect that’s a result of demographics. Old people don’t use as many online services as younger digital natives; but that’s changing as online services become more ubiquitous and grannies sign up for social networking utilities so that they can see photos of their family. It’s also a problem that will get worse over time; none of us is getting any younger, and the variety and usage of online services grows each day.
For services anchored in the real world like banking and utilities it would seem that the normal rules apply; accounts get closed down, or transferred, as appropriate. But even here there are issues, as online statements and billing remove the paper trail. If I have an online only deposit account then who even knows apart from me, the holding institution and the taxman?
Pure virtual services are clearly more problematic. If my contact book is in the cloud then who gets invited to the wake (and do digital Dunbar numbers mean a much bigger catering order)? If my photos are online how do they get passed on to my kids? Can my MMORPG artefact weapon be handed down from virtual father to virtual son (or at least can my crew keep my inventory)? This should be taken care of by the EULA or service agreement. I checked a few and found nothing. In most cases we have precious few rights even when we’re alive and kicking, so it’s no surprise that there’s no provision for when we’re dead. Maybe Richard Stallman is right to caution that we should all keep local copies of our data.
So what should be happening? Here are a few ideas:
- Service registries – a place where the online services used by an individual can be gathered together.
- Escrow credentials – so that next of kin (or executors) can access services on behalf of the deceased.
- ‘Last post’ provisions – for that final (micro)blog post, email or whatever to say goodbye.
- EULAs and service agreements with transferable rights.
Perhaps all of these things could be brought together into one service, a sort of digital undertaker. The link to identity is however key. As our needs for stronger proofing and tokens become more widespread the problem of identity inheritance (or in some cases identity delegation) become less abstract and less tractable. These things could also become features of emerging federated identity services, but in that case what would be the regulatory framework, and how do we deal with crossing jurisdictional boundaries?
Filed under: identity | 8 Comments