What are you doing about post-mortem privacy?

This is my last will and testimony. To my family I leave all of my belongings, my house, my car and all of my comic books. And I also leave them the 2.1 PB of data that I have generated over my lifetime. To store, to edit or delete as they see fit …


In May 2018 the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)will go into force. Hence the talk of the town is about privacy. Just the other week I was participating on a panel together with sharp minds from IBM, Google and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology. We were asked to share our views if it is possible to have both AI and privacy.


What happens to your data when you die?

Honestly, it wasn’t an easy topic to cover in 30 min, and we (the panelists) continued the discussion well over an hour after the panel was done. During this discussion, I had the chance to revisit what I only can describe as one of my mind exercises, the case of “post mortem privacy”.

It goes like this:

What happens with your data when you die? Now, I am sure you all have heard about different solutions and services where you can store passwords for your surviving family, so they can access or delete your social network accounts after you are gone. Or services that let your contacts on various social networks know that you have passed away. All good and well if you would feel more at ease having these services in place. But I am concerned about what happens with the data you have generated; from the messages you write to the behavioral patterns measured by your connected devices. And I am concerned how it will impact the people you leave behind.

There have been quite a few stories in media the past years about people in mourning taking their lost friend’s or family members’ data, such as messages, to build chat-bots. A place of comfort where they may continue to communicate with the person who has died. A way to ease the pain or to avoid letting go? I don’t know. But I always cringe when I hear this. Not so much about the possibility to talk to the dead. But what you may find out while doing so.

Do you want a post-mortem AI chatting to your friends?

Given that AI (or more specifically machine learning) is able to go through vast amount of data and identify patterns that may be obscure to us humans, there is a risk that your future post-mortem AI, yes the AI portraying you, will be able to answer questions on a rather intimate level. It depends of course on the data it has access to. But what if it could reveal things that you weren’t so eager to share?

Did you secretly vote for the not-so-favorable political party? Did you love one of your children more than the others? Or did you secretly fancy the angry neighbor with the yapping dog? Or perhaps you had other thoughts or opinions that you hoped to take with you to the grave? But what if that grave is no longer a secure place for stowing secrets? Perhaps it is only a AI answer away?

That leads up to another question. How sensitive is your data, and for how long? Because your secrets may be hurtful or embracing to your family. But the data could also be sensitive far beyond hurt feelings.

What if a thorough analysis of your Instagram account could expose that every three years you did suffer from a depression (apparently this type of analysis is possible for an AI on a far more accurate level then if done by humans)? And perhaps that could be identified as a genetic disorder , one that also your kids or even grandkids could suffer from. Could that become a problem when they apply for a loan,  insurance or a job?

Your data tells your story

The traces and footprint you leave behind are not only your legacy, they also tell a story about your descendants. But if your data is being used for analyzing your kids or grandkids, is it really to be perceived as your data when you are not around anymore to claim it? Or would it be fair to say that when you die, hopefully many years from now, your data should be inherited by your children?

Ok, so this is a rather speculative and gloomy kind of exercise. But I do believe that the discussion on privacy will just continue to grow. And for us still around it is valuable to think about what we leave behind. If for no other reason just to ensure that you can rest peacefully in your grave, rather than becoming a restless ghost on a server…

AI and society

If you want to read more about AI and society, try the trend “AI everywhere” from Ericsson ConsumerLab’s 10 Hot Consumer Trends.

Or two of my previous posts on AI:

Asking AI the weird questions

Can AI prevent selfie accidents?

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