What happens to your shared data when you die? To most of us, this could seem like a question that is so far ahead that we will not bother to put too much thought into it. However, with the rapid growth of the technological industry this might become a more pressing matter over time, and right now, legislations are not able to keep pace with the technological challenge.

Forbes recently did a piece about this very current topic, highlighting the key areas where data collection can be a problem for “post-mortem” privacy, starting with digital collections:

Digital Collections:

This is the only area where the answer to the question of what happens to it when you die, is relatively straightforward, however, maybe not too satisfying, Forbes writes. In accordance to the terms and conditions, when purchasing a DVD or a CD, you are not buying the media itself, but merely a licence to use it. However, this agreement dies when you do, Forbes writes.

According to the news outlet, “If the media is stored as unencrypted data on a local machine which your beneficiaries have access to, they may be able to take physical possession of your beloved record or movie collection after you die, but legally speaking it will be pirated material”. However, in 2017, most of the media content we have ownership of, is saved somewhere on a cloud, and will not be accessible for our relatives after we die.

What is less straightforward is what happens to the data that is not physical, i.e. personal data. In theory, the personal data belongs to us, unless we give permission to others to access and use it, whereby law requires the businesses to inform us before collecting it.

“A dead person, obviously, can’t do this – he or she can’t tell Google or Apple to delete the trail of GPS data which, in theory, could allow a third party to know intimate, private details about how they spent their time when they were alive”, Forbes writes, highlighting one of the key issues.

Medical Data:

Despite digital collections ‘suffering’ from unclear guidelines, there are more clear guidelines in place for medical records. In practice, medical records are stored for a certain length of time, before being destroyed.

In cases where the person is diseased it is more common for medical record systems to impose even stricter regulations to whom may access their records, often excluding doctors and clinical staff, and leaving the accessibility to research or investigatory bodies.

This does not mean that your data can no longer be used for research, it just means that it is anonymised and no longer considered your “property”. However, this regulatory framework is not implemented in terms of using personal data collected by private companies and organisations, Forbes writes.

Look at the example of Google. The regulation is significantly less around how data such as emails, GPS, documents and financial information is collected, despite it being often just as private as medical records.

“Google puts no limits on how long it will hang onto this information after someone dies. On top of this there is not even any obvious mechanism to let them know that the data they have belongs to a dead person – so will presumably continue to handle it in exactly the same way they did when it’s owner was alive”, Forbes writes. However, Google does offer an Inactive Account Manager service that allows its users to designate a person to receive an email if your account is not signed out for a significant time.

This allows the person to download anything from your photographs, documents and e-mails that are stored in Google’s server, and you can also set the account to self-delete if inactive for a said amount of time. “However, even when a living user opts to delete their account, Google have never been able to guarantee that personal data is completely removed from their systems”, Forbes informs.

Digital wills and beneficiaries:

Forbes concludes with the fact that despite being unable to assert any more control over our data after our death, it is still our data, which leaves it up to us to ensure it is treated as we wish. In basic terms, this means that the data can be bequeathed, given that we have the licence to use them, or, if they contain information we wish to keep private, they will be erased.

All we can do now, is wait and see whether legislations around dealing with our data after we die, especially concerning data gathered by third-party companies, will change. Forbes writes that currently, European legislations explicitly sets out rules about how personal data can only be stored and used for specific purposes by permission from its owner.

This article was first published at: http://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2017/02/01/what-really-happens-to-your-big-data-after-you-die/#2a3559302197