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 Inactive accounts can contain thousands of family photos and videos, personal correspondence, unpublished research, and notes that chronicle very real lives. Consider, for instance, the historical significance of unpublished works and letters discovered after the death of an author, like Emily Dickinson, John Keats, or Franz Kafka.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

This story was updated to clarify that Robyn Caplan’s parents passed away during the covid pandemic to causes other than coronavirus.


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