Who Gets Your Data After Death? Accessing and Managing a Deceased Person’s Digital Remnants

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When a loved one passes away, dealing with the mundane little things is an unfortunate, and often headache-inducing, necessity. Canceling a deceased loved one’s bills and magazine subscriptions, dealing with their financial situations… And now you have to worry about your loved one’s digital affairs as well. You have to account for everything from their email inboxes to their Facebook account, and the data they left behind. What do you do with it all?

There aren’t many clear or easy ways for people to transfer their digital assets after they’ve passed on. This includes things like their iTunes media library, or even just the credentials needed to access the departed’s various online accounts. Some people have started to wonder if they should include things like passwords to their multitudes of online accounts in their wills.

It can be difficult to successfully petition the likes of Google or Apple to release information on users who have passed away. This is often true regardless of your relation to the deceased. And social media platforms keep a tight leash on their users’ login credentials, even after they’ve passed on.

Accessing Data From a Deceased Loved One’s Electronic Devices

On occasion, we here at Gillware receive calls from people looking to have data retrieved from a phone or tablet belonging to a deceased loved one. Usually all they’re looking for are photos and contacts belonging to the deceased—photos to remember them by, and friends to notify of their passing. Sometimes this data is very difficult to get a hold of outside of a data recovery lab. This is especially true when dealing with mobile devices.

When you die, all of your data stays right where you left it. Making sure your loved ones can access the data you leave behind isn’t something many of us plan for. This can leave your loved ones in a bind when you pass away and they have to deal with your affairs—both analog and digital. The trend in data storage, especially among mobile devices, is encryption and total data security. If you don’t plan ahead, accessing the data you’ve left behind on your phone or synced with your Apple or Google account can prove difficult, or even nigh-impossible, for your loved ones.

Below are some tips for retrieving data from mobile devices and computers after their users have passed on. If you cannot retrieve the data on your own or with help from Apple or Google, though, the experts at Gillware Data Recovery and Gillware Digital Forensics can help. Our data recovery and forensic engineers have often assisted people in retrieving data from phones, computers, and other mobile devices belonging to deceased loved ones. In these situations, the data we recover often helps bring much-needed closure to the deceased person’s grieving family and friends.

Accessing a Deceased Loved One’s iPhone

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Apple iPhones are, unfortunately, notoriously difficult to access in the event of their owners’ passing. Unlike many Android phone models, iPhones do not have (often unencrypted) microSD cards you can take out of the phone. All of the data resides within the encrypted flash memory chip built into the device. You can’t pick the lock or bust down the door, metaphorically speaking. Either you know the passcode that gives you access to the data on the phone, or you don’t. Your iPhone does not send your passcode directly to some giant password database at Apple HQ. Only the user—and anybody else they may have told—knows their own iPhone passcode.

Apple’s data protection policies, especially their encryption policies, are a harsh mistress. You cannot appeal to an iPhone’s reason or emotion, because it has none. Apple iPhones are designed to be virtually unhackable without taking the most extreme of measures. Each successive model is more unhackable than the last. That’s just the way these things are—and even appealing to Tim Cook can’t change that.

However, while Apple can’t help you access your loved one’s iPhone after they’ve passed on, their Apple ID, iTunes, and iCloud accounts present a much less insurmountable goal. These accounts often hold data that is synchronized between the owner’s iPhone, iPad, and other devices. Access to these accounts is often easier to gain than access to the iPhone itself.

To gain access to a deceased loved one’s Apple ID, iTunes, or iCloud account information, you can contact Apple Support. Apple Support will ask for identifying information, such as a death certificate of the user, and proof of relation. Apple Support does, of course, often err on the side of caution when it comes to releasing information on another user’s account.

Accessing a Deceased Loved One’s Android Mobile Phone

If your deceased loved one owned an Android mobile phone, your options are less limited. Depending on the model of phone and version of the Android operating system, you may have some luck using one of these methods to bypass the passcode or pattern lock.

Many Android mobile phones also store some of the user’s data on a small microSD card inside the phone. You can easily remove the microSD card, place it into an adapter, and plug it into a computer, even if you can’t access the phone it belonged to. Not all mobile phones come with a microSD card preinstalled, however. In addition, how much data the user had on the SD card depends on how the user had their phone set up.

Owners of Android phones often have their phones tied to a Google account. In these cases, some data on the phone, such as contacts or photos, may be synchronized with the user’s Google Drive. Like with Apple, you can contact Google to access your loved one’s account. In the interest of protecting user privacy, Google asks for plenty of identifying information about both you and your loved one before they decide whether to comply with your request.

Requesting access to a deceased person’s Google account
Requesting access to a deceased person’s account on

Some of the information Google requires includes your name, mailing address, email address, the Google account username or Gmail address of your loved one, their death certificate, and an example of an email conversation between you and the deceased.

Requesting data from a loved one’s Google account is a two-part system. Google will review your request and may request a court order before moving onto the second step.

Accessing a Deceased Loved One’s Home Computer

Unlike with mobile phones, getting into your loved one’s computer to recover the files and documents they left behind proves much less of a challenge. Even if you don’t know the password to their user account, accessing the data on a computer is downright trivial. You can access their files from another account on the PC. Or, if you don’t have one, you can remove the hard drive from the PC and view the data on it on another computer using a hard disk drive enclosure or USB adapter cable. These methods all work, unless the data on the drive has been encrypted. When you encrypt data, it is impossible to make sense of it without the proper password to unlock the data (of course, if encryption were easy to circumvent, there wouldn’t be much point in having it).

This covers most of the data a deceased loved one will have lying on their physical devices once they pass on. But what about everything they’ve left behind on the Internet? What happens to it? Can you get to it?

What Happens to Your Social Media Accounts After Death?

The people using social media to stay abreast of current events, share things that are happening in their lives, and keep in touch with their families and friends number in the billions. Between Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, Pinterest, and various other platforms, people are accruing social media presences at an accelerating rate. When a user stops using an account, it just stays there. After all, your social media account won’t know when you’re dead. It can be unsettling, to say the least, to know that a family member or friend’s social media accounts are floating around through cyberspace as if nothing has changed.

All social media platforms highly value the privacy of their users, even their deceased users. As seen above with Google and Apple, the platforms holding onto your data, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., are reticent to release it to just anybody. (And in this case, family and friends count as “just anybody”.)

In general, social media platforms have no interest in providing other people with the proverbial keys to the kingdom, even after a user has passed on. However, social media platforms do have protocol in place regarding deceased users and what can be done to their accounts. Their protocol tends to be stringent, as many platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, have fallen victim to celebrity death hoaxes in the past.

Some social media platforms have policies in place allowing people who were close to a deceased user to make limited decisions about what happens to their account after they have passed on. These include things like Facebook and Instagram’s memorial accounts. For the most part, though, social media platforms simply lock or deactivate the deceased user’s account.

Setting Up a Facebook Memorial Account

Facebook’s policy regarding deceased users allows for deceased users’ accounts to be transformed into “memorial accounts.” The deceased user is not treated as an “active” user and does not appear on potential friends lists for other users and other public spaces, although anything the user shared remains in place. Friends and family of the deceased user can post on the wall of the deceased and share memories of them.

Nobody can log into the deceased user’s account or alter any information on their account. However, if the user had defined a legacy contact prior to their passing, the legacy contact is allowed limited access to moderate the memorial account, and can request to download a copy of the account. However, they will not have access to the user’s private messages or be able to add or remove friends.

Only the user themselves can designate a legacy contact. In your Facebook account settings, you can choose a legacy contact, arrange to have your account memorialized after your death, or request to have your account deleted after you pass on.

A verified immediate family member on Facebook can request to have their departed loved one’s account memorialized or permanently deleted by contacting Facebook Support.

Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, has a similar policy, with memorial accounts of its own for deceased users. However, unlike Facebook, users cannot arrange to have their account memorialized before they pass on. Instead, a relative of the deceased user must contact Instagram and provide a copy of the user’s death certificate.

Deactivating a Deceased User’s Twitter Account

Unlike Facebook, Twitter has no options for “memorializing” deceased users’ accounts. But like Facebook, Twitter refuses to share login credentials for a deceased user’s account, so nobody can post on their behalf or read through their direct messages. Twitter will deactivate the account, which puts it in a queue for permanent deletion.

If you have login credentials to the deceased user’s account, you can simply deactivate their account just as easily as you would your own. If you do not know their credentials, though, you must go through Twitter Support. To request the deactivation of a deceased user’s account, you must fill out Twitter Support’s Privacy Form. To prevent abuse of this feature, Twitter requires you to provide information about yourself and the user. This includes a copy of their ID and your ID, and may include a Power of Attorney authorizing you to act on their behalf. If you meet these criteria, Twitter will honor your request to deactivate the deceased user’s account.

Removing LinkedIn Profiles for Deceased Users

Like any online account, nothing automatically happens to your LinkedIn account when you die. This can make it distressing for your loved ones, coworkers, or classmates if, after your death, LinkedIn serves up your profile to them in a “People You Might Want to Link To” email.

LinkedIn Help requires a friend or relative of the deceased to go through a rather involved process to close a LinkedIn profile for a deceased user. LinkedIn allows anybody to submit the form to remove the profile of a user who has passed on. However, since LinkedIn asks for you to state your relationship to the deceased, they will likely deny any request made by someone who is not close to the deceased.

Deactivating a Deceased Google User’s Account

You can request to have a deceased loved one’s Google account, including their Google+ page, Google Drive, Gmail inbox, and YouTube account, deleted by contacting Google Support. You will have to go through many of the same steps as you would when trying to access data stored on a loved one’s Google account as we discussed earlier. Google is more likely to honor a request to simply deactivate a deceased user’s account altogether than to release data from or provide access to the account. Understandably, deactivating a deceased user’s account is less of a breach of privacy than sharing their data.

Planning for the Future: Keeping Your Data Manageable and Accessible After Death

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Losing a loved one is painful enough. We wish that dealing with the myriad things left behind in their absence were easier. Almost nobody likes thinking about mortality. Even fewer people relish the thought of dealing with everything their deceased loved one left behind.

Throw in our swiftly-accumulating social media accounts in the mix and things get uglier. Your grieving loved ones quickly become inundated with a flood of tiring and frustrating work as they find and deactivate the roughly half-dozen accounts the average person has today.

You can ensure that dealing with your digital affairs when you pass on doesn’t put your loved ones through unnecessary layers of bureaucracy by creating a digital estate plan.

Estate planning is an important part of making sure everything goes smoothly after you’ve shed your mortal coil. Estate planning includes writing up a Last Will and Testament, financial or health care Power of Attorney, and other documents. In the modern age, what to do with all your digital remains has to be taken into consideration as well.

A digital estate plan is, as its name suggests, a plan for your digital estate—the online data and digital documentation and belongings you’ve accumulated over the years. Your digital estate encompasses everything from digital financial records to your online accounts. Keeping your digital accounts accessible after death is part of having a good digital estate plan.

Creating a Digital Estate Plan

A digital estate plan will help your family deal with whatever you leave behind when you pass on. This includes accessing and appropriately managing your online accounts, determining whether any of your digital property has any financial value that needs to be reported, and distributing and transferring any digital assets. A digital estate plan can even keep you and your family safe from “ghosting”, or identity theft of deceased persons.

Planning your digital estate involves tallying up all of your digital records and online accounts. This includes all of your data storage hardware in addition to your online accounts. Once you’ve made a list of your digital assets, you decide what should be done with each, just as you would with your physical assets.

Some people recommend creating a separate “digital will” for your digital assets. In your will, you can appoint a digital executor. A digital executor will manage your digital estate, just like an executor manages your physical estate.

However, while Wisconsin has laws in place regarding “digital asset custodians”, not all states have legislation regarding digital estate planning. And as a result, your digital executor may not be legally recognized. Despite the legal limbo, though, appointing a digital executor can still make dealing with your estate much easier. A digital estate plan is still of great use, even if you cannot formalize it in a legally binding document.

Using Password Management Tools to Manage Your Digital Estate

We here at Gillware recommend that you store your passwords in a safe, secure place. Common choices are a locked file cabinet or a safe or safety deposit box. Only your trusted loved ones should be able to access it in the event of your death. The easiest and most convenient way to do this is with a password manager, such as KeePass.

With KeePass, you can store a digital record of all your online and device passwords in a database file. This includes anything from email, social media accounts, and streaming and data storage accounts to your smartphone’s passcode. With your password credentials in hand, your loved ones can easily deal with the digital cruft that built up over the course of your life.

Of course, this allows your loved ones to see all of the data on your accounts. You may want to exercise prudence in what login credentials you make available to your heirs.

There are many options for you to choose from to make your password database file accessible only to the right people. To make sure your loved ones can get to the file itself, leave the database on a flash drive or burn it to a CD. The next step is ensuring that only the right people have the master password to unlock the database.

Whatever you do, proactively planning your digital estate can make things much easier on your loved ones once you’ve moved on.

Keep in mind that we here at Gillware are data recovery and IT experts, not probate law experts. To plan your digital estate, discuss the matter with your estate lawyer, just as you would to plan your physical estate.