DIGITAL MEMORIES: There's little understanding about what happens to digital records.
DIGITAL MEMORIES: There's little understanding about what happens to digital records. Creatas Images

What happens to our digital possessions after we die?

PRICELESS family photos and other memories are being lost forever because older Australians don't know how to preserve their 'digital legacies' after death, new research from Edith Cowan University (ECU) has revealed.

It's one of the research findings from ECU Master of Computer Science student Derani Dissanayake, who surveyed people aged 65 and older about their knowledge and attitudes toward their digital property after they pass away.

"Our research found there's a real lack of understanding by older Australians about what happens to their family photos, social media accounts and other digital possessions after they die," she said.

"Most people assumed ownership would automatically be passed on to their children or heirs with the computer or smartphone they used to access a service like Facebook, Apple iCloud or Google Photos.

"However, because of the way this information is stored and accessed, it's not as simple as just bequeathing those photos, music, books or even video games to someone.

"This research points to a real clash of minds in terms of digital objects and their ability to be owned like physical possessions."

One research respondent said to the researchers: 'I thought that (my digital possessions) were part of my estate, and they would automatically go to my children. I mean I have got a lot of ancestry stuff. I have got lots of family history and so I thought that's my estate and goes to them automatically'.

Well what I thought was, when I die, my executor will have access to my computer, my iPad and my iPhone and anything else which is digital'.

Tech platforms make it difficult

Ms Dissanayake said there are enormous inconsistencies in how technology platforms treat the death of their users and their digital assets.

"These inconsistencies are contributing to the confusion and lack of awareness among older people, ultimately leading to their digital assets being lost forever," she said.

Microsoft's legacy policy allows the 'next of kin' to receive access to certain data.

Google has a Digital Heir policy that allows for data deletion after up to 12 months of inactivity.

Twitter deletes all data after 30 days.

Facebbok allows you to choose to either appoint a legacy contact to look after your memorialized account or have your account permanently deleted.

Need for education and legislation

The research recommends new, across-the-board legislation to facilitate the transfer and access of digital content of a deceased person's estate by a nominated heir.

"As well as making transfer easier, legislation should allow Australians to indicate whether their information, particularly on social media platforms, is deleted or memorialised upon their death," Ms Dissanayake added.

She said a concerted campaign to educate older people about how their digital assets would be handled after their death was also needed to prevent valuable information being lost.