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What happens to Big Data when we're gone?

Big Data

It may be a morbid topic, but talking about what happens when you die can influence a number of choices and decisions you make while you're alive. However, one thing few of us consider is what happens to all the information that's been collected about us during our lifetimes.

An article in Forbes has highlighted the way in which the amount of data that is gathered has significantly increased and, as such, people's opinions on its importance will soon change.

The report emphasises that it's not just the data that we consciously store in a bid to make our lives more convenient, but there's a lot of information that is collected and stored about us that most people don't think about. As Internet of Things (IoT) tech and Big Data in general grows, the number of devices that gather some type of user behaviour statistics is likely to rise rapidly.

With everything from your smartphone to your music streaming service collecting data about you, it's essential that people get a better understanding of how this information will be used and what will happen to it when you're gone.

Although you may think that your data is exactly that - yours - the law protecting your rights when it comes to your private digital information is hazy and often conflicting between nations. This makes it confusing for anyone short of an expert to properly understand who your data will belong to when you die.

For example, as the Forbes article highlights, when you 'buy' digital media from Amazon, iTunes or other similar services, you don't own any of it when you're dead. According to most terms and conditions, you are buying a licence when you buy digital music, ebooks or films, and when you die so does the agreement and your relatives would have no rights to it when you are dead.

However, the issue gets a lot more complicated and the stakes are a lot greater when it comes to personal data. Most companies are obligated to tell people how they are collecting and storing their data when they gather it, and in most cases the individual has the right to have it deleted or change the terms.

For a dead person, this is obviously impossible to do, so businesses could potentially be free to sell on your data to a third-party without anyone stopping them. When it comes to medical data, the laws are far stricter and often restrict the amount of time any data can be kept for alive or deceased people. However, Google, for example, has very few restrictions on the duration that it can store data for.

This means many people are left calling for further clarification and possibly legislation to properly understand what will happen to our data after we die. At the moment, Google itself is in the middle of a big fight against France, with the latter arguing that the search engine is flouting its controversial 'right to be forgotten' law. 

The legislation requires Google to take away any links to pages that “appear to be inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant or excessive … in the light of the time that had elapsed”, according to the European court of justice’s ruling in 2014. The search engine firm has obliged and removed around hundreds of thousands of results so that users from EU countries can't see them, regardless of what version of Google they are using.

However, the French courts judged that the search engine needed to do more and ruled that Google needed to apply the right to be forgotten to all searches on all Google domains. The company rejected this ruling and has appealed, saying it complies "with the laws of the countries in which [it] operates".

Kent Walker, Google's general counsel, said abiding by the ruling could cause other countries - some of which may be less open and democratic - to demand that their laws also have global reach.

This latest legal battle highlights the potential headache of companies having to abide by different data protection laws if they operate in multiple companies, and the headache when there is conflicting legislation.