Cyber Security

How does afterlife look like in cyberspace?


Death is a tragic occurrence, especially to the people who have lost a loved one. But reality tends to be merciless in certain cases. Over the years, we have seen a surge in identity theft cases that has specifically targeted the dead, and leaving the families distraught.

As a commoner in 21st century, it is obvious that a person is bound by the virtual world. With various social media accounts revealing different pieces of information (vulnerable information stored in vulnerable places) a user is an open book to thousands, if not millions. The possessions we leave behind after death has just seen a hike with the inclusion of these digital assets. It is not enough anymore to just take care of the legal/official stuff.

The digital world solidifies your whereabouts, sometimes forever, if not handled properly. The social media platforms where we spend most of our time (alas!) leaves us vulnerable in this regard. The question is “are they doing enough to protect our data once we are gone?”.

Only a few social media tycoons have taken the necessary policies to ensure a legitimate process of shutting all access to a dead one’s account. Google helps you designate an inactive account manager who is notified when your account has been inactive for a specified amount of time and gives access, only if you choose to, to your private data. The intention behind this is to let your confidante (Google verifies this person using a contact number) to delete or protect your account after your death.

 Facebook follows suit by letting you assign a “legacy contact” who is entrusted with the responsibility to either memorialize your account or delete it permanently once you are gone. An account that is memorialized flags the account and shows Remembering in front of the user’s name. The account and its content will be intact but it won’t appear on suggestion lists or in birthday reminders.

However, what these platforms don’t entail is what happens next if the designated manager/contact becomes unavailable for their own reasons. This puts the account in a digital limbo, and accounts like these (that have been dormant for long) become susceptible to privacy breaches. In some cases, it is not just identity fraud that is at play. The hacker could emotionally target the dead person’s close circle putting them in a vulnerable place. One example is of a woman who received FB texts from a dead friend’s account. The fraudster impersonating as her friend was using the account to harass her. Even if she knew she could block the account or report it, she hesitated as it was the only remaining connection to her friend. This is an unsettling experience but situations like these are rampant than it appears to be.

This possibility of misuse also applies to close ones who have legitimate access to the deceased’s account. For instance, a former partner with malign intentions could take advantage by using the account in a way that the deceased might not have approved of.

Coming back to our options while alive, studies show that it is not easy for users (in most cases) to implement necessary steps due to a lack of technical skills. This is made harder by the host platforms as such options are either not explained properly or are lost in the array of settings which in itself could be daunting. This responsibility falls on the companies as they have the know-how to create awareness amongst the users.

To explore a different aspect of this issue, the legal side of this debate is even more fuzzy. Unless you have clearly written everything down in your will that includes your digital assets, your account(s) online may suffer. Your content, in most cases shared with multiple people, makes things complicated. If you have a selfie with your friend who is tagged, whom does it really belong to? Do you own it partially with that friend? Or do you have full rights to it? This makes the social networking content (digital content) a pedantic enterprise.

There are certainly many loopholes when it comes to effectively installing the necessary policies to manage afterlife accounts. Unless all valid issues that could arise aren’t properly taken care of, the accounts of the dead remain vulnerable.

The best thing to do in the face of such complexity is to manually find the options that will help you successfully end things gracefully. Assign a confidante who can take care of things once you are gone. Simple steps can go a long way.

Theertha Dhanesh
A novice in cybersecurity aiming to promote discussions in privacy and security related areas, and helping users to understand the intricacies of this world a little better.

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