Your digital life isn’t as permanent as you think it is

Robyn Caplan understands the fragility of digital memories intimately. After tragically losing both of her parents during the covid pandemic, Caplan treasures the digital possessions she inherited. She cherishes her mom’s iPad, access to her dad’s email inbox, and message threads with both of them. It allows her to see the world through the eyes of her parents, she says. 

After Caplan moved away from her family in Canada to New York, her mom had sent a text each morning converting the temperatures in the weather report for Caplan’s new city from Farenheit to Celsius along with suggestions for fun things to do that she found online. “I never actually learned Fahrenheit because I relied on this for my first 10 years here ,” Caplan says. 

Caplan, a researcher at Data & Society and an assistant professor at Duke University, guards her text thread with her mom fiercely. The conversation is saved in multiple ways, but she panics each time she gets a new phone, worried it might disappear.

On May 16, Google announced that starting in December 2023, it would delete personal accounts that haven’t been active in over two years. Photos, emails, and docs attached to inactive accounts will all be eradicated as part of the policy. 

Accounts with YouTube videos won’t be removed, the company later clarified, after people pointed out that the policy could lead to the destruction of historically significant video clips. Other details still remain unclear, such as whether Google will make exceptions for accounts that are inactive as a result of ongoing legal issues or because they belong to people who are incarcerated or medically incapacitated. Google did not reply to our questions.

The company says the new policy is a move to increase security, since old accounts are more vulnerable to hacking, are unlikely to have two-factor authentication enabled, and tend to use less rigorous passwords. 

The announcement follows a similar one from Twitter last week, pledging to purge accounts that have been inactive for several years. It caused an uproar among people who don’t want their deceased loved ones’ accounts to be deleted. 

The policy changes are a reminder of how fragile our digital lives are and just how little control we have over their preservation, says Tamara Kneese, author of the forthcoming book Death Glitch: How Techno-Solutionism Fails Us in This Life and Beyond. With cloud storage, we’ve developed an expectation, or fantasy, that data is infinite and that our digital spaces will last forever.

“If Google follows through with this policy, and if other companies follow, then there is a risk that we will collectively lose entire historical archives along with rich personal memories,” she says. 

Though Google cited security concerns as the chief reason for its new policy, experts we spoke with speculated that cost burdens also contributed. 

It’s a lot to ask of tech companies to host all of our data indefinitely, says Caplan. Although data storage costs per unit have decreased by around 90% in the past decade, we require more and more of those units each day as the amount of data increases exponentially. Other considerations include the environmental cost of powering the computers that store that data and the risk that keeping data indefinitely creates a larger and larger “attack surface” for cybercriminals. 

A rolling history

All that data consists of records of human behavior. Inactive accounts can contain thousands of family photos and videos, personal correspondence, unpublished research, and notes that chronicle very real lives. Consider, for instance, the historical significance of unpublished works and letters discovered after the death of an author, like Emily Dickinson, John Keats, or Franz Kafka.   

“People have put a lot of effort into creating histories to share their thoughts, to record their experiences, and to share them with others. And because these platforms are making,  fundamentally, a business decision, this material will simply be erased from history,” says Mark Graham, director of Wayback Machine at the Internet Archive, a project that preserves and stores data from the public web. 

Graham says it’s important we stop assuming that tech companies will store our data in perpetuity and start archiving our digital lives ourselves. Kneese agrees, and says that it’s likely we will see more companies implement similar ‘Use it or lose it’ policies over data online as data use and storage requirements expand. 

Kneese says that individual users will need to take more responsibility for their own data, now and after death, which poses challenges for those who want to pass on digital possessions to future generations. (Google does offer a tool that allows users to specify what happens to their account after two years of inactivity, including an option to send files to designated people.)

“Do giant tech companies really want to be data legacy stewards? Are they equipped to fill this role, from a legal or ethical perspective? I don’t think so,” says Kneese.

Caplan’s family still regularly refers to her dad’s email inbox to sort his affairs. “The paper company would’ve never threatened to come to our house and burn our letters after somebody passed away,” she says. She intended to back up her mother’s email account right after our call. 

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