The Fragility of Digital Memories in the Digital Age

Category Technology

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Robyn Caplan understands the fragility of digital memories intimately after losing her parents in the pandemic and has seen the impact of this fragility when Google announced that accounts which are inactive for more than two years would be removed starting December 2023. Though Google cited security concerns, experts suspect cost burdens also contributed as data storage costs increase as well as the risk of cybercriminals. Additionally, by deleting inactive accounts tech companies are in a way responsible for erasing historical artifacts, insights, and remembrances from existing archives.

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Robyn Caplan understands the fragility of digital memories intimately. After tragically losing both of her parents during the covid pandemic, Caplan treasures the digital possessions she inherited. She cherishes her mom’s iPad, access to her dad’s email inbox, and message threads with both of them. It allows her to see the world through the eyes of her parents, she says.

After Caplan moved away from her family in Canada to New York, her mom had sent a text each morning converting the temperatures in the weather report for Caplan’s new city from Farenheit to Celsius along with suggestions for fun things to do that she found online. "I never actually learned Fahrenheit because I relied on this for my first 10 years here ," Caplan says.

Google clarified that YouTube accounts will not be deleted but the personal accounts associated with them may still be lost.

Caplan, a researcher at Data & Society and an assistant professor at Duke University, guards her text thread with her mom fiercely. The conversation is saved in multiple ways, but she panics each time she gets a new phone, worried it might disappear.

On May 16, Google announced that starting in December 2023, it would delete personal accounts that haven’t been active in over two years. Photos, emails, and docs attached to inactive accounts will all be eradicated as part of the policy.Accounts with YouTube videos won’t be removed, the company later clarified, after people pointed out that the policy could lead to the destruction of historically significant video clips. Other details still remain unclear, such as whether Google will make exceptions for accounts that are inactive as a result of ongoing legal issues or because they belong to people who are incarcerated or medically incapacitated. Google did not reply to our questions.

Deleting accounts can be an effort towards reducing the risk of cyberattacks.

The company says the new policy is a move to increase security, since old accounts are more vulnerable to hacking, are unlikely to have two-factor authentication enabled, and tend to use less rigorous passwords."If Google follows through with this policy, and if other companies follow, then there is a risk that we will collectively lose entire historical archives along with rich personal memories," she says.

Cloud storage has become increasingly popular in recent years which has reduced the costs of storage.

Though Google cited security concerns as the chief reason for its new policy, experts we spoke with speculated that cost burdens also contributed.

It’s a lot to ask of tech companies to host all of our data indefinitely, says Caplan. Although data storage costs per unit have decreased by around 90% in the past decade, we require more and more of those units each day as the amount of data increases exponentially. Other considerations include the environmental cost of powering the computers that store that data and the risk that keeping data indefinitely creates a larger and larger "attack surface" for cybercriminals.

Due to increasing amount of digital data the risk associated with cybercriminals has also become more significant.

--- A rolling history --- .

All that data consists of records of human behavior. Inactive accounts can contain thousands of family photos and videos, personal correspondence, unpublished research, and notes that chronicle very real lives. Consider, for instance, the historical significance of unpublished works and letters discovered after the death of an author, like Emily Dickinson, John Keats, or Franz Kafka.

The personal data removed from inactivated accounts may consist of thousands of family photos, videos, and personal correspondences.

"People have put a lot of effort into creating histories to share their thoughts, to record their experiences, and to share them with others. And because these platforms are makiing this inaccessible, there is a large part of our history that won’t exist anymore.", Caplan says.

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