(CN) — In the digital age, death seems to have less finality to it amid the abundance of social media accounts left behind in its wake and the struggle for family and friends of the deceased to obtain access to them, according to new research released Sunday.
Faheem Hussain, assistant professor at Arizona State University, is exploring the unique situation at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Sunday.
“It’s certain we’re going to be dead, so where’s the design for that?” said Hussain. “There’s a huge design disconnection.”
Hussain said in a statement that he has witnessed first-hand the difficulties involved in trying to gain access to social media accounts of deceased loved ones after they die.
“We have normalized talking about safety and security of our data and privacy, but we should also start including the conversation of how to manage data afterwards,” Hussain said. “It’s a bit tricky because it involves death and no one wants to talk about it.”
Hussain has been researching the issues of social media and digital rights, including the digital afterlife. Along the way, he has documented how companies have changed their policies regarding the management of data left behind by those who died.
In his research, Hussain said he discovered digital afterlife policies in developing countries are woefully inadequate. He and his research team found that such policies leave people more vulnerable to issues of privacy and digital ownership. The researchers said that more needs to be done to “lessen the gap in digital afterlife policies between developed and developing countries.”
Citing a recent study that found Facebook could host almost 5 billion dead users by 2100, Hussein said the problem is not slowing down.
“It’s important for us to talk about the digital afterlife,” said Hussain. “You need to manage what will happen when you are not here anymore.”
Many companies have changed their digital afterlife policies in recent years. Facebook turns the dead person’s page into a memorial, allowing a legacy contact to manage it and Google gives users the ability to set up a contact who will gain access to parts of the account once it has been inactive for a period of time.
But these policies require forethought from the user who has to set these contacts earlier, Hussain said. He said more communication must be made with digital service companies in order to allow family and friends of the deceased greater access to the data.
“I think it’s important that we have a say in it,” Hussain said.