Data of the Dead: Virtual Immortality Shows Holes in Privacy Laws

Perhaps You Have wanted to talk to a loved one after they died?

It used to be the just necromancers and mediums may claim to contact the deceased, but soon digital versions of the deceased may be alive just a couple of clicks away.

From South Korea into the United States, tech startups are taking a look at ways to keep the dead alive at a digital afterlife that data experts say poses myriad ethical and legal concerns that the planet is yet to properly address.

“Technically, we could recreate anyone online given enough data,” said Faheem Hussain, a clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University’s School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

“That opens up a Pandora’s box of ethical consequences.”

Most services just allow people to register up for their own digital afterlife while they are still alive.

However, the absence of regulation on the problem leaves the door open for others with access to the information of the dead person to bring them back to life in virtual type – increasing concerns about privacy and consent, information specialists say.

“In most countries on the planet, the information of the deceased are not protected,” said Edina Harbinja, a senior lecturer in media and privacy law in Birmingham’s Aston University.

“Therefore, nothing in legislation could prevent the introduction of an avatar or android that would resemble the deceased”.

That could occur without the permission of the dead person, along with the information used may infringe on other people’s privacy when it includes for example conversations the individual had with others and friends, ” she noted.

Virtual alter egos
Other companies have been looking at social media as a source of information to make chatbots that could impersonate us after we are gone.

ETER9, a social media setup by Portuguese developer Henrique Jorge, pairs every user using an AI”counterpart” that learns to replicate their online behavior and may post comments and articles in their behalf – even once they are dead.

“When a user decides to keep his counterpart active for eternity, he’ll have the extension of himself alive forever,” Jorge informed the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed remarks.

“Some years from today, your great-grandchildren are going to have the ability to converse with you even if they didn’t have the chance to know you in person.”

US-based Eternime offers a similar company, while Replika, a company in California, creates digital alter egos that users can speak to if in need of a confidant or company.

Other startups like SafeBeyond and GoneNotGone let people to capture messages and videos which will be dispatched to their loved ones after death, like letters from the tomb marking birthdays or other life events.

Many questions, few answers
While some people might find comfort in the notion of residing on digitally after they perish, data experts warn that holes in data protection laws make it possible to practically resurrect someone with their permission.

Wills can provide some guidelines should they contain directions on how best to dispose of the deceased’s digital assets, but in some countries there is not any guarantee these will be honoured, stated Harbinja in Aston University.

In Britain, as an instance, decisions around what related to data are seen as personal wishes – like preferring cremation rather than burial – which can be overridden by executors and heirs and are not enforceable in court, Harbinja noted.

A few European nations allow heirs to exercise data protections granted to the dwelling, such as the right to access or erase personal data or transfer it from one social media platform to another.

ETER9 founder Jorge said his social network deals with some of those issues by allowing users to establish their accounts to stop generating articles on their behalf once they have expired.

Users may also nominate a individual to be responsible for their accounts after departure.

But those defenses bring about some moral conundrums, like whether it would be appropriate to pull the plug a digital avatar that someone had put up as a perpetual testament to their lifetime, Harbinja explained.

“If the data protection and other legislation cater for the rights of their family members or of their deceased?” she asked. “And where do we draw the line between life and death, or between recalling someone and recreating someone?”

Reign of the dead?
Together with the amount of Facebook profiles belonging to dead individuals expected to outnumber people of their platform’s living users in a few decades, info privacy concerns are becoming more pressing,” said Carl Ohman in the Oxford Internet Institute.

Apart from helping bereaved men and women grieve, the information left behind by the dead person can provide future generations with an unparalleled insight into our society, according to Ohman, a digital afterlife expert.

And leaving firms who stand to make money with that archive to decide what to do with it could be problematic, he added.

Some might decide to delete profiles which aren’t profitable, destroying valuable historical data, though some could create avatars that do things that their dwelling versions would haven’t approved of in a bid to increase yields, he said.

1 solution would be for the industry to come together and self-regulate around moral standards like those embraced by archaeological museums – handling the data of the deceased as though they were”digital human remains”, Ohman proposed.

Companies could make aggregated and anonymised information of deceased people public for investigators to research, releasing more detailed information – especially about relevant historic figures – as the years pass, he said.

At the same time, complete digital resurrections ought to be limited to people who consented to it in life, and they need to be made fully aware of how their information will be displayed post mortem, leaving no space for later modifications, he added.

Guessing the way the electronic afterlife world will develop – and how popular virtual avatars could become – may take more still.

The ETER9 website, which has been under care for weeks, has approximately 70,000 users, Jorge said, compared with Facebook’s 2.5 billion.

The Eternime project counts almost 47,000 readers but is currently on hold because of lack of funding, its founder said.

Hussain of Arizona State University said it is important to begin a global conversation to address a few of the problems the industry poses until they come to the fore.

This is especially true at a time where online interactions are ballooning as the new coronavirus pandemic forces many to stay home, he added.

“Human society as a whole is creating more electronic footprints than ever before,” he explained.

“Among the certainties in life is that we are going to be dead, so where is the layout for it?”

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