Private members’ bill to allow access to deceased’s digital data

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A private members’ Bill has been introduced to parliament by MP Ian Paisley, aiming to give the families of deceased or incapacitated people immediate access to their digital data, without the need for legal action.

Paisley introduced the Digital Devices (Access for Next of Kin) Bill on 18th January, and has so far received cross-party support from 11 MPs in addition to Baroness Beeban Kidron in the House of Lords.

The reason for introducing the bill is that an estimated £25 billion of UK assets and items of sentimental value are held in online accounts, cloud storage, social media or other protected electronic storage, but many people do not make adequate provisions for access to these online repositories in their will, and indeed many UK adults do not have a will.

While many online accounts and repositories do include personal and sentimental items such as music, photos and videos, they can also include cryptocurrency, frequent flyer points and other award schemes of commercial value.

Currently these sentimental and commercial items, can be lost forever, inaccessible to the deceased’s loved ones because there is no legislation to rights of access to a person’s digital device or account, with successors “at the mercy” of big tech companies when trying to obtain access, says Paisley.

The bill, which will receive a second reading on 4th February, plans to remove inaccessibility barriers by enabling the deceased’s next of kin automatic access to digital platforms and devices in the deceased’s name.

STEP has also previously recognised the requirement for a review of digital assets in a report published last year, where it called on the government to “provide clarity on how people can ensure that their digital assets are passed on in accordance with their wishes“.

Emily Deane TEP, STEP Technical Counsel and Head of Government Relations commented:

Our personal and work lives are becoming more digitally dependant and the digital transformation of the estate industry is being challenged to evolve and adapt.

Digital assets have become a common part of modern estate planning and estate administration, with demand for advice expected to increase significantly in future. We are seeing grieving families frequently experience difficulties accessing digital assets on death or incapacity of a family member, causing distress and frustration. We are therefore urging the government to present a clear legal solution to these issues.”

Stephen Moses, CEO and Founder of Digital Estate Planning firm Zenplans says however, that granting automatic access to next of kin is problematic, and that there needs to be a balance between access and privacy. For that to happen, he says, there needs to be more consumer awareness of the issue of how to pass on digital assets and platform providers and tech giants need to work towards creating clear, simple and robust “legacy access” functionality.

Moses commented:

“The issue of access to digital assets of the deceased is an important topic to address, especially given our growing digital footprints, but I’m not sure that next of kin having automatic access to devices and accounts should be the default position; there is a need to balance accessibility against privacy.

As our lives become more and more digital, as a society, we need to be thinking about what this means in terms of the security, privacy and accessibility of our digital assets, both in our lifetimes and after we have passed. There is a level of responsibility on us, the consumer, to get these things organised, but there is also a huge responsibility on platform providers and tech giants to work towards creating clear, simple and robust ‘legacy access’ functionality.”

Moses says that while a handful of providers already offer legacy options, Google’s Inactive Account Manager and Facebook’s Legacy Contacts have been in place for some time now, while Apple recently included digital legacy its recent upgrade, they all have different terms and conditions, meaning users have to configure the appropriate settings for each device or account individually, which can be off putting resulting in low take-up.

Moses concluded:

“Digital estate planning platforms offer a way of securely organising, recording and selectively sharing all of life’s important information – including information about accessing digital assets – in one place, making it easy to manage in life, and easy for you to decide who has access when you die or lose capacity.”