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Summary:

Parents trying to get their daughter’s Facebook messages to learn more about her death were stopped by federal privacy rules. The situation shows again how current laws have not evolved to account for the age of social media.

Heaven, sky

A California judge has shut down a U.K. couple’s attempt to obtain the Facebook messages of their daughter, a 23-year-old model who died in a mysterious tragedy. The judge’s decision highlights, once again, growing questions over privacy and how to handle social media after we die.

The California case turns on Sahar Daftary, a former “Face of Asia” winner, who fell 150 feet from the balcony of a luxury apartment in Manchester. Her parents had asked Facebook for her messages in the hopes they would shed light about how and why she died. But in his ruling last week, Judge Paul Grewal quashed the request after Facebook argued that turning over the messages could violate federal privacy laws.

Daftary’s mother had argued that, as the executor of her daughter’s will, she had a right to access Sahar’s Facebook account. But Facebook pointed to a law called the Stored Communications Act that forbids companies from sharing users’ emails without their permission. The judge sided with Facebook.

Both sides have a point here. On one hand, family members may want to learn more about a loved one’s last days. But on the other, Facebook is right to worry about privacy laws. Facebook and other companies are probably also keen to avoid getting caught in the middle of a fight between relatives (or, worse, insurance companies) over a dead person’s profile.

Finally, there is the issue of what the dead person themselves would have wanted. As social media lawyers Venkat Balasubramani and Eric Goldman point out, what if the departed want to take their Facebook secrets to the grave?

The situation is complicated because state laws drafted in an era of physical things have not evolved to account for our digital lives. This creates problem that extends both to social media and to digital property like iTunes.

For now, individuals who want their families to have access one day to their Facebook accounts still have options: put the password in your will or give it to someone you really, really trust.

Update: Facebook provided the following statement on its memorialization policies:

“We believe we have put in effective policies that address the accounts that are left behind by the deceased. When we receive a report that a person on Facebook is deceased, we put the account in a special memorialized state.  Certain more sensitive information is removed, and privacy is restricted to friends only. The profile and Wall are left up so that friends and loved ones can make posts in remembrance. If we’re contacted by a close family member with a request to remove the profile entirely, we will honor that request. People can submit reports through dedicated forms in our Help Center. These forms are linked to from the following FAQ: https://www.facebook.com/help/?faq=13941.”

[Note: the above statement was amended on 10/1/12 to reflect a subsequent Facebook clarification".]

(Image by simonalvinge via Shutterstock)

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  1. Completely agree with the judge’s ruling here. As an individual, this girl has a right to privacy even after her death. Perhaps her messages contain information that could tarnish her mother’s memory of her related to activities that she intended to keep secret from here parents. A social network site should be able to violate privacy by passing her personal messages to a third party after she dies. I understand here parents would like to search for clues regarding the circumstances of her death. If there are potential clues in her messages, the investigating authorities should be trying to get the messages from Facebook.

    1. Dispute that ruling – in the proper probate court – jurisdiction county of residence of the decedent, in Will named to the executor of the Estate. The executor IS the ‘authority’ recognized by the probate court, that may not be denied, removed, or succeeded without formal hearing in judgement order entry signed by the sitting probate judge.
      The law is concerned with the truth in FACTs, not feelings in third party opinions.

  2. I have no personal opinion on the specific case – but the dichotomy of “Facebook secrets” is staggering on many levels.

  3. Karthik Karuppannan Thursday, September 27, 2012

    you can add your close friends/family to ‘Trusted Friends’ who will be able to unlock your account in case if it’s lost, or hacked, or you die. The trick is all the friends in your trusted friends list are needed to unlock the account, not just one friend.

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