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Court Rules Private Text and Chat Data Can Be Inherited. Time to Panic.

A recent court ruling that allowed parents to receive their deceased daughter's private text messages hints at a future where our children will know us through old texts.

A German court has ruled in favor of two parents suing Facebook for access to the private messages of their deceased daughter. Specifically, the parents in the case wanted to know if their daughter, who was killed by a train, had contemplated suicide, but the ruling in their favor has broader ramifications. The court has suggested that private digital communications can be inherited in the same way that physical diaries and letters already are. If the ruling holds and becomes part of the European Union’s aggressive stance on social media, which has recently resulted in billions being spent by businesses to fall in line with the General Data Protection Regulation, it could quickly come to represent a new standard and make deleting one’s history part of the digital hospice experience.

Should this terrify parents, most of whom will be outlived by their children? No. Not if they’re behaving themselves. But it should serve as a healthy reminder that online behavior is real behavior in every key sense.

Rest assured that the idea children will one day have a view into their private communications will give some parents pause. Text and messenger correspondence is often dashed off and all-to-often ill-conceived. These misspelled missives are often sent in draft form, which will likely confuse kids and voice over artists alike should Ken Burns continue to make documentaries in perpetuity.

No. Text and Facebook messages are the stuff of banal existence. For instance, I’ll send a text to remind my wife to buy more almond milk. I might fire off a Facebook message the morning after a bender to apologize or reminisce about drunken behavior. Maybe I’ll send a text message to my mom to say a quick “I love you,” or when I’m traveling I’ll send a text to ask what my wife is wearing, followed by winky face emoticon. I use texts to send images and ideas that are, in turns, tender and lascivious.

Clearly, if they’re given a cache of my private messages upon my death, my kids are going to discover things about me that I may not have wanted them to know. They will have an accurate record of my private behavior. I don’t want that for me and I don’t want that for them. I want them to remember me as I was, but also in the best possible light. They can look at my heavily curated Instagram and think fondly of my rueful smile. I do not need them to see my various attempts to get my wife to sext. I do not want them to see how unresponsive I’ve been towards my own parents.

Here’s what I really don’t want them to see: My wife and my messages about parenting. Were we to get hit by a truck tomorrow with a digital inheritance law in place, they would spend the next two days reading their way through our backchannel communications and the following twenty years in deep therapy. My wife and I love our kids, but that doesn’t mean we’re never frustrated by their behavior.

Clearly, the assumption of privacy in my digital communication is no longer a given — or, better put, won’t always be a given. And that means that I’ll need to be more conscious about the messages I send and the messages I delete. I’m going to have to be old-school sneaky, like my father and his father before him. In a sense, it’s a return to a historical norm.

Will that mean that I will begin trying to write texts that have the gravitas of letters from a war zone? No. But it will give me pause before I dash out a frustrated message about how my son is being a jerk. Because he might read that message someday, and amidst all the embarrassing truths that my text might reveal, I want him to know that even in the most frustrating moments, I loved him more than anything in the world.