Before we had computers and the Internet, people kept their cherished memories inside photo albums, filing cabinets and safety deposit boxes. When someone died, their family and friends usually had access to these keepsakes and looked at them whenever they wanted to reminisce about their loved ones. But now that people are storing these same types of mementos on hard drives, social media accounts and the cloud, it has become increasingly difficult for family and friends to have access.
Digital assets have become a hot button issue in recent years because some people believe they should have access to their family member’s files when they die. In order to settle financial disputes or simply for sentimental reasons, grieving relatives have gone to court and fought for the right to own a dead person’s blog, their social media account and even their e-mails. While some people believe this doesn’t matter because dead people have no say, others see it as a huge invasion of privacy.
“The digital world is a different world. No one would keep 10 years of every communication they ever had with dozens or even hundreds of other people under their bed.”
–Ginger McCall, Associate Director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) is an independent non-profit research group based in Washington, DC. Founded in 1994, they actively focus public attention on privacy issues in the information age. EPIC routinely files amicus briefs in federal courts, pursues open government cases, and defends consumer privacy and civil liberties issues. They believe that nobody should have the right to a dead person’s digital life, and that’s why they are very skeptical about a new act approved yesterday by the Uniform Law Commission (ULC).
The ULC, also a non-profit organization, has existed since 1892 for the sole purpose of creating uniform laws across the United States. Their latest proposal, the Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (UFADAA), will authorize access and control of all your digital assets and accounts to your beneficiaries when you die. The act is aimed at removing barriers to electronic records, and unless you explicitly state in a will or trust who can have access, your digital life will belong to someone who wasn’t intended to see it.
To become law, the UFADAA must be adopted by each state’s legislature. If passed, every “terms of service” agreement you’ve ever agreed to will become null and void. All your text messages, e-mails, pictures and everything else you’ve stored digitally will no longer be protected.
“In the modern world, digital assets have largely replaced tangible ones. Documents are stored in electronic files rather than in file cabinets. Photographs are uploaded to web sites rather than printed on paper. The UFADAA solves the problem using the concept of “media neutrality.” If a fiduciary would have access to a tangible asset, that fiduciary will also have access to a similar type of digital asset.”
–The Uniform Law Commission
Before the digital age, people destroyed the things they didn’t want to be seen when they were dead. People burned photographs, shredded letters and took secrets to their grave. If there was something you didn’t want people to see, you simply got rid of it. But now that everything is stored digitally, are we ever truly protected?
It’s no secret that people keep certain types of files hidden. But if the UFADAA ends up going into effect, anyone that has access to your physical data will also be granted permission to control your digital information. This law would eliminate any secure way of keeping your information private – whether it’s protected by a password or not.
Some companies like Google, Yahoo! and Facebook have clauses in their “terms of service” agreements that are aimed at protecting the privacy of their deceased users. However, this hasn’t deterred people from suing them for access to these accounts and many have been successful in obtaining them. Because these terms will become void if the law passes, the only way to be completely safe will be to either not use digital services or not keep secrets – two things that are ostensibly achievable, but unlikely.
As technology keeps advancing, our control over it also seems to keep diminishing. How many times have pictures, videos and e-mails been “leaked” in recent years? How many people have been forced to resign from their jobs because of comments they made in private? How many secrets have been exposed? The list is endless, yet people continue to live a digital lifestyle out of convenience and necessity.
There’s no getting around this: We live in a digital world. Whether you like it or not, someone will most likely be looking at your digital life. If you’ve never thought about this before, take a few minutes to tally everything you want to keep private when you are dead. How many pictures do you want nobody to see? How many emails do you want nobody to read? How many websites do you want nobody to know you visited? Now, tell me, how will you be remembered?