How to Preserve your Digital Records: What to do and Tools to Use

Category Technology

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This article discusses the ephemerality of digital records and what tools we have in order to manage and preserve them for our lifetime, such as safeguards provided by tech companies and tools like The Email Scientists. It also asks the question if personal data should be deleted when we pass away.

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I recently published a short story about new policies recently announced by Google and Twitter that allow the companies to remove inactive accounts. Google said the decision was based on security concerns, and experts I spoke with said that these sorts of policies are likely to become the norm.

It got me thinking about my own email records, and the systems that we have—or, more precisely, don’t have—for preserving our digital lives.

By 2023, an estimated 4.6 billion email users are sending around 347 billion emails alone every day

Globally, around 347 billion emails are sent every day, according to data analysis by Zippia Research. My own archive holds treasured messages marking some of the more important days of my life: a letter of acceptance to graduate school, travel plans with my sisters, a job offer at Tech Review, an invitation to reconnect with a close friend with whom I’d lost touch.I have many more mundane and unexceptional emails chronicling the patterns of my days that I still value deeply: a record of an argument and its resolution with one of my best friends, generous and consistent feedback from my parents on the stories I write, and the adoption papers for my rescued dog.

Data & Society researcher Robyn Caplan believes that it's too much to ask of tech companies to provide these spaces for us indefinitely

I’ve never thought all that much about what to do with all these digital records. I have had a sort of expectation that I will always have the ability to access and manage my emails on my own terms. I don’t currently save particularly important ones the way I store cherished handwritten letters in a shoebox. I probably need to adjust the way I think about these things.

Because of course, in reality, I’m just renting space from a network of computer servers and cables under the ocean, called the cloud, owned by a tech company with an annual revenue of over $200 billion. And as one of my sources, Data & Society researcher Robyn Caplan, told me, it’s "a lot to ask of them to provide these spaces for us indefinitely." .

Google and Twitter’s new policies reiterate their right to delete inactive accounts after a period of time

There is no guarantee of digital permanence. Though tech companies certainly reference data storage and archiving as a core selling point of their services, online documents like emails are at once both more permanent and more ephemeral than analog letters. And we all need to get used to this idea.

The new policies foreground the ephemerality. "It feels like a broken promise somehow," says Caplan. But the promise was, largely, only implied.

Tech companies such as Microsoft and Google offer 'data loss prevention' safeguards to minimize the risk of data loss

But should all that personal information really start being deleted on a rolling basis three to five years after we leave this life, or however long it takes until our children stop nostalgically logging in to our email accounts? .

Many folks are working on answering that question and thinking about new ways to pass on digital possessions. In the meantime, during my reporting I learned about a couple of tools at our disposal for more actively managing our digital records: .

In some countries, such as France, the law entitles us to access a digital archive of our digital records after our lifetime

What else I’m reading .

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