Digital Data Dilemma: What Happens To Online Information After Death?

By Jay Richardson
Disclaimer

 

The evil that men do lives after them; their digital data is oft interred with their bones.” This author’s variant of Mark Anthony’s famous line from Act 3, scene ii of Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare.

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People protect their valuables.  Usually, valuables are protected by security measure available only to the owner. Before the digital age, the most common protection used was safes and safe deposit boxes. These options have one significant advantage: they physically protect what the owner put inside of them by clearly limiting access.[1]

Flash forward to 2013. Now, instead of papers stored in safes, people store valuable information not only on their computers and phones, but on online networks owned by others including “the Cloud.”  A few examples of valuable digital data are:

  1. Financial accounts (banks, insurance, brokerage)
  2. Email
  3. Social Media Accounts (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.)
  4. PDFs of valuable documents stored on a computer

If a person dies with digital assets, how can the deceased’s family or legal representatives obtain that data, let alone know if it exists?  Moreover (and this question may come as a shock to some), who actually owns this data – the deceased’s loved ones, or the online source itself? This question is a complicated legal one and is beyond the scope of this article, although it is an interesting one (this article has some interesting thoughts, though).[2]

As of January 2013, Oregon does not have a specific law to allow a deceased person’s legal representative to gain access to digital data, particularly online digital data. This makes many people wonder what they can do to make sure their digital data is accessible to loved ones after death. More specifically, what can you do to give your survivors the best chance of obtaining your digital data (assuming you want this) and allowing your representative access to the information they need to handle your affairs? Until specific legislation is created about this issue, most experts recommend the following:

  1. Locate the sources of your digital data. Sources include your email provider, social media sites, and even tax return information stored on a laptop or flash drive.
  2. Consider storing password data on an encrypted electronic list.  A few popular software tools that can accomplish this are LastPass and KeePass.
  3. Include passwords for your computers, tablets, smart phones and encrypted data storage devises in this list.
  4. Write instructions for your survivors to locate this encrypted list and access it if you become incapacitated or die. Store these written instructions in a safe deposit box or safe at your home.

One final suggestion is to take the time to read the terms of service for all of your online accounts that are protected by a password. Find out which providers will allow the account to be transferred, reveal passwords, allow access to content without necessarily allowing access to the entire account, and if they will terminate an account at death.

The reality is that most people aren’t motivated to follow the above steps. Most of the population has extensive digital data stored online. It’s important to remember how important access to that information would be to our family and representatives should we die. Not only are there the “important” things like financial data, but also the things of sentimental value like the photos on someone’s Facebook profile. For more information about password and data security, please contact Fixed Fee IT

 


[1] What happens to a safety deposit box after the owner dies? Oregon statues provide procedures for obtaining an inventory of the contents of a safe deposit box and, in some circumstances, obtaining the content after the owner dies. ORS 723.844.

[2] A Website’s Terms of Service may not permit a non-owner to use another’s passwords to access person’s account.