From email to social media, what happens to data after you die?

Most of us maintain a sizeable online footprint of email accounts, social media profiles, data storage, and digital media licenses. Having unrestricted access to data is incredibly convenient, but most people don’t stop to consider, “What happens to data when you die?”

To help you gain a better understanding of this concept, here’s a simple overview of digital asset management and how the death of an individual can impact it.

But first, let’s understand digital assets and ownership

Digital assets are essentially electronic possessions and virtual property you manage online. However, when it comes to an untimely death, there is no universal method of handling these assets on behalf of the deceased.

In other words, society is forced to rely heavily on the “terms of service” for each online account. There is no widely accepted “data-after-death” rule.

Email Accounts

Email accounts can store what seems like unlimited amounts of relevant data, especially for individuals who operate a business or store copies of legal documentation.

However, separate email clients have their own rules when it comes to accessing data after someone has died. Most clients have laws that stipulate that in the event of an account owner’s passing, the next of kin will be able to access the data.

Clients like Gmail and Hotmail allow this provision so long as you can provide a death certificate, proof of kinship, and photo identification. However, it’s important to know that while clients like Gmail will hold data forever, Hotmail typically will only store data for a year before the account is deactivated and inevitably deleted.

Social Media Accounts

Navigating the policies of social media accounts can be cumbersome, especially when it comes to accessing accounts and the data stored in them after the account owner dies.

Facebook and Instagram, for example, will not allow anyone to access the user’s account regardless if they are related to the individual or not. Instead, a form can be filled out to turn the deceased user’s page into a customizable memorial page, which will remove any sensitive information on the page.

Twitter accounts can be requested for deactivation from family members of the deceased after providing sufficient proof of death; however, access will still not be allowed by anyone but the account owner.

Digital Media Collections

When it comes to virtual assets, most people immediately think of their digital media collections (TV shows, movies, and music purchased and stored in the cloud). However, there isn’t necessarily a universal standard when it comes to ownership of these assets, either. In most cases, online media purchases are for the license only to use these services, and the license expires when the user dies.

It’s important to always review the terms of service for each website you purchase digital media from — especially since gaining access to and using these licenses without permission could be a form of piracy. As a rule of thumb, anything that is stored and encrypted on a cloud service may not be accessible to third parties without explicit permission.

Final thoughts

In some cases, access to your digital assets can be achieved if you provide instructions in a will that specifically touches on data management and access. However, in most cases, it’s important to treat each asset individually, since each website and service offers up unique terms of services.

Want to keep reading? Check out 3 steps to take if your credit card data is breached.