The posthumous privacy paradox: Privacy preferences and behavior regarding digital remains
Tal Morse, Hadassah Academic College & Michael Birnhack, Tel Aviv University
How do digital technologies shape perceptions and behavior with regards to posthumous privacy? Our personal data is increasingly stored online, reflecting more and more aspects of our identities. Scholars observed a gap between users’ stated preferences to protect their privacy online and their actual behavior. This is the privacy paradox. Once users die, their personal digital data will become digital remains. Currently, there are a few options to manage access to digital remains, suggesting a possibility to control access to personal data, posthumously. These technological changes raise questions regarding posthumous privacy and the applicability of the privacy paradox to the posthumous condition. The article queries the persistence of the privacy paradox after the users’ death: Is there a gap between users’ preference regarding their posthumous privacy and their behavior when managing access to digital remains?
Drawing on a national survey of a representative sample of Israeli Internet users, we compared preferences and behavior regarding access to digital remains. The analysis yielded three different groups:
(1) Users who are interested in preserving their privacy posthumously, but do not act accordingly. For them, the privacy paradox persists posthumously.
(2) Users who manage to match behavior to preferences. For them, the privacy paradox is undone.
(3) Users who are interested in sharing personal data posthumously, but their (non)actions are likely to result in the opposite, namely, the online platforms will prevent others from accessing the data. We call this scenario the inverted privacy paradox. It is a new category, yet unobserved in the literature. We point to some explanations for the persistence of the posthumous privacy paradox and for the inverted privacy paradox.
The discussion deals with the intersection of technology and society and the emergence of new possibilities for manifesting the self posthumously and the need – if at all – to regulate access to digital remains.
Dr. Tal Morse teaches at Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem. His research focuses on media and death, especially death online and mediated death rituals. His book, The Mourning News: Reporting violent death in a global age was published by Peter Lang (New York) in 2017. Morse earned his PhD at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE).
Prof. Michael Birnhack is Associate Dean (Research) at the Faculty of Law, Tel Aviv University. His research focuses on information law, especially privacy and intellectual property. He has served on the Israeli Council for the Protection of Privacy. His 2010 book, Private Space: the right to privacy, law and technology (Hebrew), won the Israeli Political Scientists Association Annual Prize.
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