A U.K. court ordered Apple to provide a widow access to her late husband’s iPhone photos, after a lengthy legal battle that ended Sunday when the woman and her daughter could finally look at the pictures.
Matt Thompson did not leave a will when he took his own life in 2015, and Apple makes clear that user accounts are non-transferable after death.
The case attracted a lot of media attention. Rachel Thompson and her attorney are using the moment to engage the public in a conversation about making arrangements for digital content in the event of death.
Lengthy court fight for iPhone photos
The case pitted grieving heirs against Apple’s strict policies on data privacy. Thompson, now a single mother of a 10-year-old daughter, said her husband recorded every family moment. He left behind more than 4,000 still photos and 900 videos.
“Photos used to be kept in physical photo albums but now they’re kept online,” Thompson’s attorney Matt Himsworth told the Daily Mail. “Now, instead of looking through a photo album, our loved ones need a username and password to access this material. But what happens when they don’t have this information?
“There should be a universal process in order for heirs of estates to access the data held in these accounts.”
Thompson was estranged but not divorced from her husband when he died. She could not remember her husband’s password, so she went to an Apple Store. Staffers said they could not access the photos on her husband’s phone.
Apple told her she would need a court order to gain access to her late husband’s iCloud account. It took nearly three years, and several thousand pounds, to get the photos and videos.
Central London County Court Judge Jan Luba issued the order last week. The judge also called for changes in privacy law that would make these types of cases easier to settle.
Apple did not contest the order. The company granted Thompson access over the weekend.
“He would take his phone everywhere and take hundreds of photos,” Rachel Thompson said on a London morning television talk show. “He was very artistic and he recorded our life as a family.”
Plan for your digital afterlife
Life Matters Media, a Chicago-based resource helping families and health care professionals talk about death, offers a Guide to Digital Death (.pdf).
Some of the organization’s recommendations include:
- Take an inventory of all the online services used for banking, paying bills, shopping, social media accounts and cloud storage.
- Choose a password management system, whether it’s an Excel spreadsheet or a service like Dashlane, PassWordBox or Keeper, to hold accounts and passwords.
- Select a fiduciary to manage the accounts after your death. A will should include the way to access the chosen password management system.