Centre for Death & Society

Digital Inheritance


 Principal Investigator: Wendy Moncur

Project Partners:  Centre for Death and Society at the University of Bath, SCRIPT (the AHRC Centre for Studies in Intellectual Property and Technology Law) at The University of Edinburgh, Chambers of Stephen Mason, HORIZON Digital Economy Research, Intel Corporation, Microsoft Research Ltd

Funder: EPSRC Post-doctoral Research Fellowship (Cross-Disciplinary Interfaces).

This research is being conducted at the University of Dundee. The Centre for Death & Society are an advisory partner in the research.

Project rationale and aims


Moncur, M (2013 Forthcoming), 'Digital ownership across lifespans' in Ageing and the Digital Life Course. Eds. Chiara Garratini and David Prendergast (Intel).

Bikker, J, Kasket, E, Moncur, W and Troyer, J. (2012), 'From Death to Final Disposition: Roles of Technology in the Post-Mortem Interval'. Proc. SIGCHI conference on Human factors in computing systems (CHI'12), Austin, Texas, USA.

Moncur, W. and Waller, A. (2010) 'Digital Inheritance' RCUK Digital Futures 2010. Nottingham, UK.

Departmental themes

Institute for Policy Research themes

The data that makes up people's online identities lies scattered across the virtual landscape, consisting of emails, photos, social network site interactions and more. Such data can have emotional, financial and intellectual significance. Yet the awkward question of what happens to this data when a user dies lies unanswered.

There are three main components to this open question, which this research seeks to address:

  • How do online applications need to change to allow users to nominate data inheritors? There is no obvious mechanism for the bequest of one's digital artefacts. It is subject to the terms of use of individual web sites and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), buried far down in the small print or not dealt with at all. In life, we own our personal data, no matter where it is held.
  • How do online applications need to change to facilitate inheritance of personal data in the inevitable event of a user's death? After death, ownership of the deceased's personal data is a grey area. This can result in distress and inconvenience for the bereaved as they struggle to retrieve precious online artefacts.
  • What are the boundaries for the acceptable creation, ownership and management of online memorials which re-purpose inherited data, appropriate to UK cultural norms? We are already seeing spontaneous technology-based responses to death and loss emerging- e.g. - online memorials. Many are respectful and appropriate, yet some are not - and can cause further anguish to the bereaved as a result.

There is a lack of research to establish boundaries of acceptability in this highly sensitive area. This research will address the questions outlined above from a participatory perspective, collaborating with users, and with experts in law, psychology, sociology and social software. It will firstly establish what people want to happen to their data after they die, their preferences in expressing these choices, and how these choices should be acted upon. Secondly, the research will examine how the bereaved choose to repurpose these digital artefacts, how this repurposing can assist in the grieving process, and the way in which these repurposed artefacts should be managed to protect the sensitivities of the bereaved. The work will be underpinned by a theoretical understanding of the bereavement process and empathetic social behaviour.

Project outputs and impacts

A collaborative relationship is being build with Maggie's Cancer Care. It is hoped that resources for those with cancer can be created, to enable them to plan their digital legacies.

Find out more about this project

Name: Mrs Caron Staley
Title: Institute Manager
Department: Dept of Computer Science
Location: Virgil Building 3.28
E-mail: c.staley@bath.ac.uk
Phone: work+44 (0) 1225 386275

You can also view project details at the EPSRC website