Dealing with data after death ain’t easy. Here’s why

Lawyer Stephen Wu, speaking at the DataEDGE conference in Berkeley, Calif., on May 31, 2013

If you want to know what happens to your online data after your death, you won’t get a clear answer. At the moment, it depends — on various companies’ terms of service, the state you live in and whether you’ve given another person access to your data — even though the data can have plenty of value, lawyer Stephen Wu pointed out at UC Berkeley’s DataEDGE conference on Friday.

First, Wu showed how, at least in California, digital data could be viewed as property just like physical property that an executor of a will should be able to obtain with a court order. “‘Property’ means anything that may be the subject of ownership and includes both real and personal property and any interest therein,” California probate code states.

And it turns out the data can have value. A recently deceased writer might have stored a breakthrough novel in her Dropbox, or she might have valuable assets on Second Life. She might have bought songs on iTunes, too. If those accounts get automatically deleted, though, the value can go away.

“What happens to that music upon death? It’s not really clear,” said Wu (pictured).

Literal money could also get lost, Wu said. If, say, $1,000 is sitting idle in her PayPal account, the money might not get passed to her relatives and instead could end up as unclaimed property on a state level.

Different states have different policies in place on what happens to data after death.

As Wu pointed out in a white paper this week, Oklahoma allows an executor or administrator to take control of social media accounts and email accounts, although cloud storage accounts and PayPal-like services aren’t included. Connecticut and Rhode Island only grant control over email accounts, Wu said.

Wu recommends that people share usernames and passwords with people they trust — an idea that has come up before. But that method might not always work, because some companies have their own answers to the data-after-death question. Yahoo’s terms of service declares that an account cannot be transferred and that its contents “terminate upon your death.” That could pose problems for estate planners, Wu said.

Google takes a different approach. Last month, it introduced its Inactive Account Manager as a way to handle what happens to a people’s Google Accounts after death. “Google has taken a really great step by making this an option,” said Jed Brubaker, a UC Irvine Ph.D. candidate speaking at the conference who also thinks about data after death. More attention on the Inactive Account Manager could lead other companies to ask users to set their own policies up front, Brubaker said.

Beyond the variability among states and companies, it’s worth asking if access to data post-mortem should extend beyond family members and enter some kind of publicly accessible data repository, which data scientists and presumably anyone else could explore. In presenting this concept, Brubaker used the word “donate,” not unlike a person permitting organ donations after death.

While it isn’t always fun to talk about death, it might make sense to talk more about data after death, because until clear policies emerge, dealing with it all is going to remain messy.

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