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Social Networks

Facebook's plan to hand over profiles of the dead raises identity concerns

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Facebook recently announced plans for a “legacy contact” so social media profiles can be maintained after the death of their owners by trusted others.

Here, Richard Law, CEO of identity management software developer GBGroup, answered questions on the significance of Facebook’s move.


Is the Facebook move unique?

Facebook’s move to allow users to appoint a ‘digital power of attorney’ may be among the first but it will surely not be the last. If anything, it represents the perennial nature of Facebook and the focus people are beginning to place on their digital afterlives.

I expect other networks will soon follow Facebook’s lead as users become increasingly aware of the value of their identity and the increased need to protect it – even after death.

Is authenticating identity currently a problem in terms of the threat of deliberate identity theft of the dead?

I would love to see a world where identity theft simply doesn’t happen – especially of those that have left us. However, it’s a sad fact that there will always be a handful of fraudsters that exploit others and steal data for profit and gain.

With the sheer volume of data intelligence available, linking online and offline identity information, there is no excuse for companies not knowing an identity is ‘deceased’. If businesses know via Facebook that someone is deceased, this can instantly update their core customer systems.

The onus needs to be on businesses protecting, and constantly authenticating, the identity information that a customer shares with them in a non-invasive manner.

What controls should be in place?

Facebook already introduced a memorialisation process back in 2009 where family members or friends had to stipulate the date of death, as well as provide a link to formal documentation or an obituary that was then reviewed by Facebook. This obviously helped them prevent any misdirected requests, but the process is understandably painful for the mourner.

Facebook has to take legal responsibility and make sure it has all the necessary checks in place to authenticate both the heir and also any documentation in use as part of the process. Anything Facebook can do to alleviate the administrative and emotional burden from family and friends during difficult times would be welcomed by the mourners.

Do you think there’s scope for abuse?

There are obvious privacy and trust issues at play, which Facebook has to delicately balance. Facebook must not be seen to be handing over personal data and as such has limited access for the nominated user to actions such as posting at the top of the memorialised timeline and updating the cover photo. ‘Digital heirs’ will not be able to log in as the deceased or see their messages or download their contacts.

However hard Facebook may try, there is always scope for abuse. Surely, therefore, the question needs to be: how much do you trust your nominated ‘digital heir’ and, therefore, how much control do you wish to give them? Facebook has taken a ‘one size fits all’ approach which doesn’t actually allow the majority of digital heirs to complete the job asked of them i.e. manage the deceased person’s identity after death.

Is it all simply a matter of trust?

Ultimately it’s for us and not Facebook to determine how much trust we have in our heir. Users should be able to stipulate the amount of control, access and visibility they give to their digital heir and Facebook should be able to accommodate requests to give full access to them.

The fact that those with power of attorney can have full access to a deceased person’s bank account, but not their entire Facebook profile, highlights the clear disparity between our online and offline worlds. We need to realise that the edges are becoming blurred – online authentication and controls should be as robust and rigorous as offline ones; user demand will dictate it.

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Martin Veitch

Martin Veitch is Contributing Editor for IDG Connect

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