Rage against the Ghost in the Machine

Thursday, January 18, 2018 - 4:30 pm–5:00 pm

Lilly Ryan, Software and Systems Engineer


People have been using technology to try to contact ghosts for over a hundred years, but now, for the first time, we are leaving behind seeds for a genuine digital afterlife. Trailing personal information in our wake every time we touch the Internet, it becomes increasingly possible to create a digital presence that will use these (and future) data points to respond and react to events after our deaths much as we might have in life.

We have already begun to build this reality, but we still need to ask some tough ethical questions about our digital ghosts. Are they technically 'us'? Are they subject to the law? Who owns your digital remains after you die? Could a hacker spin up a doppelgänger to plague you in life? Could we donate our metadata to science as we can already donate our physical selves?

Outside of 'Black Mirror' episodes and art installations, the question of personal data and digital legacies is rarely seriously considered, and it leads to uncomfortable gaffes as digital services grapple with what to do when users die. This talk is a space to take stock of how the software we write today could be used in fifty years, and what design decisions we should make to ensure we can respect the wishes of the dead.

Lilly Ryan, Software and Systems Engineer

Lilly Ryan is a software engineer and privacy advocate from Australia who spends her days building and breaking corporate identity systems. Following a stint as an academic specialising in the surveillance mechanisms of medieval Europe, she has spent more recent years writing code, teaching practical tech privacy to the public, speaking about the history and ethics of technology, and camouflaging herself in libraries.

@inproceedings {208159,
author = {Lilly Ryan},
title = {Rage against the Ghost in the Machine},
booktitle = {Enigma 2018 (Enigma 2018)},
year = {2018},
address = {Santa Clara, CA},
url = {https://www.usenix.org/node/208160},
publisher = {USENIX Association},
month = jan

Presentation Video