Digital afterlife: Balancing privacy, precious memories

Sharing your digital memories after you die

When a loved one dies, you may want access to the photos, music, or emails they leave on their electronic devices. However, getting access can be very difficult. Right now, federal law put those digital assets under a veil of privacy protection.

Rick Davis of Ypsilanti learned that lesson in heartbreaking fashion. He lost his wife of nearly 32 years in the summer of 2014. She left her iPad behind and Davis wanted to cherish whatever memories its contents might provide.

"Be able to see what the last few months of her life was like," he said. "You know probably a lot of it is in there. It might be painful for me to see, but it's her life."

There was just one problem, Davis didn't have the password for her iPad. Reaching out to Apple for help, he was told he would need a court order in order to gain access.

"It means everything to me to have that thing unlocked and it would mean nothing to them," Davis told Ruth to the Rescue.

Protecting Privacy

Protecting the privacy of customers, living or not, actually means a lot to companies like Apple, Facebook and Google.

Aaron Somes, a Best Buy Geek Squad agent, says people should make plans to deal with these kinds of issues before it's too late. He says people should back-up their pictures, documents, and other digital memories on an external storage device.

He also recommends leaving passwords with trusted family members or friends. "Perhaps you split that responsibility depending on that information," Somes said. "Some of it may be sensitive to certain eyes and ears."

Social media companies are trying to design methods that allow users to outline what they'd like to see happen to their accounts when they die.

"Hopefully in the future, when somebody dies, their next of kin can see exactly what they wanted them to see," said Carl Szabo of the policy counsel for NetChoice.

Right now, companies look to a federal law passed in 1986 for guidance. That law forbids consumer electronic-communication companies from disclosing digital content without it's owner's consent or a government order. It's a law that hasn't kept up with fast-changing technology and lifestyles.

Szabo said, "The Electronic Communications Privacy Act in 1986, I like to say is a 28 year old law that is 30 years out of date."

Companies have come up with ways to navigate the issue. Google has an Inactive Account Manager that allows the user to set the parameters for what happens to their data. Facebook allows a page to be memorialized and frozen, granting the same access to contents the user approved in life. Twitter allows next of kin to close an account, but require a death certificate.

The Uniform Law Commission is working to pass legislation in all 50 states to establish updated guidelines. Last year, Delaware passed legislation that gives estate attorneys and other fiduciaries control of their deceased clients digital data. That law may conflict with the federal law.

Szabo feels the Delaware law goes too far, and NetChoice would like to see a better balance of the privacy concerns with survivors' ability to deal with the estate. "Our industry is really trying to find a way to balance all of the interest," he said.

Sad Ending In One Cast

Rick Davis was never able to access the data on his wife's iPad. While Apple gave him the instructions to unlock the iPad, her data had been wiped clean.

He urges everyone to find a way to share those passwords with those you love, if sharing those digital memories is important to you.

"The heartache of not having the information that's on there it's terrible. It's terrible," he told Ruth to the Rescue.

See more of Rick's story here.

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