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What Happens to our Digital Data When We Pass Away?

With technology becoming more and more prevalent in our daily lives and more photos, books and music collections moving online, it begs the question – when we die, what happens to the digital trail we leave behind?

Dealing with online possessions is perhaps the last thing one would consider when losing a loved one, but nowadays with online accounts and numerous internet passwords to remember, it is increasingly something that we need to think about and include in our estate planning.

As expected, policies differ between companies but several social media websites have already established practices to address such issues.  Twitter, for example, deletes the profile of the deceased person upon notification of their death, while Facebook gives family members the option to apply to have the profile memorialised.  In the event of death of one of its users, Gmail, on the other hand, requires proof from the next of kin of an email conversation between them and the deceased in order to give access to the account.

With so many different practices, what is the best way to record your digital wishes to ensure they are carried out?  Music files, movie collections and e-books have usually not been included in Wills although such treasuries can sometimes have a real value.  However, many people are now adding digital assets and internet passwords to their Will along with their material possessions.

No best practice guidelines have been established as yet so the process of inheritance of digital assets can be a complicated undertaking.  Some solicitors recommend selecting a person to be in charge of your digital legacy and giving them access to login details.  Another option is creating a digital Will.  There are a number of websites serving as executors, taking charge of a person's digital wishes after they pass away and conveying who takes ownership of the accounts.

Legislation is attempting to catch up with the quickening pace of developing technology.  In America, John Wightmann, a state senator in Nebraska, is promoting a new state law that would allow a Will's executor to access the deceased's social media accounts to either close them or leave them as a memorial.

The European Union is also taking steps to increase data protection measures and ensure consistency across the board for companies when dealing with the deceased’s information.  As highlighted by EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding in a prepared statement, the suggested new laws would standardise data protection requirements across the EU member states and protect the right for people to access and transfer their personal data as well as enforce their ‘right to be forgotten.’

The digital ‘right to be forgotten’ means that personal data will have to be deleted from the internet as well as company databases should consumers ask.  The new bill may take up to two years to be approved.  In the meantime, it might be worth having a think about what information you have online and how you plan to safeguard this data once you’ve gone.