What happens to your electronic data when you die?

July 21, 2022

Have you ever wondered what happens to your photos, videos, tweets, emails, text messages, and audio files when you die? Where do they go? Who can get them? Who owns them?

Each company has its own policy agreement that users sign when they open an account. You know, the “please read carefully before you sign” text that is usually in 6-point font and has a scroll-down shortcut conveniently provided for you? I would guess that from time-to-time people don’t actually read the whole thing and just sign. What that text usually says, among other things, is that you are agreeing to co-own the data you share. But then, what does that mean? For example, if you use Facebook, while you do own all the data that you post, Facebook also owns that data.

So, what’s the problem? In the United States, only living people can legitimately hold property. When you die, the company that you shared data/posts with becomes the sole material owner. There are ways to designate who controls your data in the future but, if you wait too long, your loved ones could lose that data forever.

If you would like to be proactive and designate how your data may or may not be used in the future (and who controls it) you can take action now. Here are a few suggestions:

 Use Google’s Inactive Account Manager, which notifies a trusted contact when your account has been inactive for a certain period of time

 Set up a “legacy contact” on Facebook so you can control who will manage your account when you die

 Appoint a digital executor in your will to handle all of your digital property

 Leave your passwords to someone you trust, so they can retrieve any meaningful data, like family photos

Lastly, if there are things you really don’t want others to see, protect them with a file encryption manager so that they can not be accessed without you.