Today, the University of Glasgow officially opens our new Centre for Data Science and AI with a visit from Richard Lochhead MSP. The Centre brings together academics from across our four colleges to tackle some of the world’s grand challenges and create a better world for all.

One of the roles of this new centre is an independent unit to improve societal and policy readiness for advances in data science and AI. An under-discussed area which the centre will seek to address is the legal and environmental implications of digital data.

Most products have a finite lifetime, either by design or through functional or natural obsolescence. However, digital data are unique in this sense as they can theoretically be stored forever through back-ups.

Our digital lives, captured on social media platforms or in our email accounts, can be much longer than our physical lives, creating a "digital immortality" with serious legal, societal, environmental, and ethical implications.

Currently, many of our regulations, like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the Data Protection Act, are designed to apply to the identifiable or personal data of living people.

This means that if a dead person’s social media or email accounts are hacked, GDPR and similar regulations can’t protect their personal data after death.

Instead, it’s currently up to tech companies to decide how to deal with the accounts and data they hold for dead users. They can deactivate accounts if death certificates are provided, set memorial accounts, assign legacy accounts or delete the account and data altogether.

However, those rules are often inconsistently applied, and users often don’t make well-informed choices about their data legacies when given the option by tech companies. Decisions taken about dead users’ data by tech giants have led to legal challenges from users’ families.

This could become a much bigger issue in the future, because many countries do not recognise the concept of digital inheritance - a set of rules which govern what happens to our data after we die.

In many countries, wills are public documents, so users can’t share their passwords in their wills in order to keep their accounts safe. Without a legally-binding digital inheritance regulation, assigning one users’ digital properties to another party is a challenge – an issue which will become even more pressing as digital currencies become more wildly adopted.

Another related challenge is the carbon footprint of our internet presence, a huge contributor to greenhouse gases which is often overlooked.

If the internet was a country, it would be the fifth-biggest energy consumer in the world. Every "thank you" email or Facebook "like" made by the average Scot adds up to 136kg of emissions every year from the data centres which run those services.

Being more careful about what we do online, and making a plan for dealing with our data after we die, can help us reduce our impact on the planet.

Researchers from the Centre for Data Science and AI will work to help address these issues and more with decisionmakers, stakeholders and tech companies, helping to ensure that our digital lives don’t live on without our consent and finding new ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the technologies which hold so much promise for creating a brighter future.

Professor Ana Basiri is director of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Data Science and AI.