Everybody Dies: What is Your Digital Legacy?

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“What happens to your email when you die? For most people this hopefully isn’t an urgent question, but a few high profile cases have made it an issue for lawmakers and judges around the world. You might think that your family could show up with a death certificate and/or a court order and get access to your digital content, but it’s not that straightforward.

The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) governs what types of information cloud service providers like Google and Yahoo! can disclose and under what circumstances — and it doesn’t account for death. Companies are inclined to point to their terms of service to decide when and how to provide access to accounts, but this is often decided on a case-by-case basis. This has left a confusing and delicate gap in the law that competing entities are rushing to fill. It’s easy to forget the amount of administrative work we conduct in online accounts  —many of us only receive electronic statements and bills— and one of the tasks facing grieving families and friends is to close and settle accounts for their deceased love ones. This is challenging without access to email or other digital accounts where statements and other notifications are commonly sent. Additionally, years of family memories can be stored in a password-protected account, often through cloud services.

The combination of sentimental and practical reasons to give access, and the serious privacy concerns implicated in doing so, has made this a hot button issue. Several states have already introduced legislation, and we expect to see more this legislative session. Currently, anyone can write their will to include instructions for the dispensation of online accounts in whatever way they wish. ECPA does not prevent account holders from granting access to their own accounts by sharing passwords or other security details. (Pro-tip: Don’t put your passwords in your will because that document will become part of the public record. Instead, leave instructions for where to find a list of passwords to chosen accounts.) This is a good solution — it allows individuals to express their wishes, gives clarity to tech companies, and doesn’t require anyone to look at the U.S Code. However, only 45 percent of Americans have a valid will at death, and far fewer specifically address access to digital accounts, leaving many personal representatives with uncertain fiduciary duties.”

Alethea Lange – CDT – “What happens to your email when you die? For most people this hopefully isn’t an urgent question, but a few high profile cases have made it an issue for lawmakers and judges around the world. You might think that your family could show up with a death certificate and/or a court order and get access to your digital content, but it’s not that straightforward. The federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) governs what types of information cloud service providers like Google and Yahoo! can disclose and under what circumstances — and it doesn’t account for death. Companies are inclined to point to their terms of service to decide when and how to provide access to accounts, but this is often decided on a case-by-case basis. This has left a confusing and delicate gap in the law that competing entities are rushing to fill. It’s easy to forget the amount of administrative work we conduct in online accounts  —many of us only receive electronic statements and bills— and one of the tasks facing grieving families and friends is to close and settle accounts for their deceased love ones. This is challenging without access to email or other digital accounts where statements and other notifications are commonly sent. Additionally, years of family memories can be stored in a password-protected account, often through cloud services. The combination of sentimental and practical reasons to give access, and the serious privacy concerns implicated in doing so, has made this a hot button issue. Several states have already introduced legislation, and we expect to see more this legislative session. Currently, anyone can write their will to include instructions for the dispensation of online accounts in whatever way they wish. ECPA does not prevent account holders from granting access to their own accounts by sharing passwords or other security details. (Pro-tip: Don’t put your passwords in your will because that document will become part of the public record. Instead, leave instructions for where to find a list of passwords to chosen accounts.) This is a good solution — it allows individuals to express their wishes, gives clarity to tech companies, and doesn’t require anyone to look at the U.S Code. However, only 45 percent of Americans have a valid will at death, and far fewer specifically address access to digital accounts, leaving many personal representatives with uncertain fiduciary duties.”


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Eleanore

Eleanore

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