The Looming Online Avalanche: Something to think about

There’s a problem in the offing. One that you probably haven’t thought about. It’s a little like global warming: It may not affect you personally — but it will affect billions of people in the near future (along with many close relatives). Policymakers have begun to respond. Some companies are
approaching the problem head-on. Others are ignoring it. This may be understandable — given that it’s not really a problem. Not yet. But expect 20 million problematic “cases” next year. And that number will only continue to rise.

Here’s the thing.

The number of online cloud-storage users — who avail themselves of services like Dropbox and Google Drive — is expected to exceed two billion by the end of 2019. In the future, this number is expected to rise even further. Taking into consideration users with accounts with multiple services, whether social
media accounts or other types of online accounts, the sheer amount of data — personal information and memories — will become increasingly difficult to fathom. It’s fair to assume that when these individuals die, their data will die with them. Much of it will be stowed away in a black box until the terms of service dictate their obliteration.

The Numbers
Extrapolating from the existing data, 20 million users are expected to die annually in 2019. And that number will continue to increase as the number of internet users continues to grow globally (over half of the world’s population will be online by end of 2020) and users will become older. This means
that in the next ten years approximately 100 million individuals who store data online will have passed away. If the average internet user has subscribed to an average of seven to ten accounts, that means that about billion individual accounts will be relegated to a black box with an uncertain future.

In other words: Let’s assume that each user has uploaded 100 gigabytes’ worth of files, photos and other documents on average. This means that 10 billion gigabytes (10 exabytes) of user-generated content and personal data will be stored online after they pass away, but owing to the terms of service — their files will be unreachable.

What happens to all that data when users die?
Policy makers and industry leaders have started to address the issue. The EU, for example, has begun to standardize the regulation with the GDPR law (some think that this law will apply to the US as well). But the GDPR regulation focuses on what right a person has to his or her data while they are
alive — and fails to address the issue of what happens to that data after they die: whether it is transferred to other people or whether it is accessible in the event of the person’s death. In some cases, what happens is an enigma.

Users should decide for themselves