MTPR

Montana Bill Would Give Survivors Access To Your Digital Data After You Die

Mar 12, 2015

Every day millions of us create Facebook posts, Tweets, and other digital records of our lives. But what happens to all this content you’ve created, when you die? Montana could become one of the first states to answer that question as a matter of law. A bill heard Thursday morning in the House Judiciary Committee would give your survivors access to your data, unless you leave specific instructions to the contrary.

Missoula attorney Dirk Williams has a client whose son died suddenly, leaving behind important information that was locked inside password-protected computers.

"We could not get to first base with Apple Computer in trying to get even his Apple password," Williams said. "If we would have had this law we could have sent a simple letter of appointment of a personal representative to Apple, and under this law we could have gotten into that information."

Currently you can leave instructions about who can access your data, or even request that it be deleted when you die. What’s not clear now is what happens when a person leaves no instructions, and that’s what this law attempts to clear up. This bill allows the "personal representative" of a deceased person, such as the executor of their will, to  access the person’s online accounts, to retrieve photographs, documents or anything else.

But at least one social network is fighting back against the proposal. Dan Sachs is an associate manager for estate policy with Facebook. He says the act of dying does not constitute giving consent to let other people see your digital data.

"This bill would flip the consumer expectation that the default is privacy on its head, and say that when you die, you only get privacy if you specifically ask for it in your will, and it would do it not because consumers are asking for it... This bill is solely for the convenience of probate lawyers."

So far eight states have passed laws allowing survivors to access a person’s email, social media, or other data. One more, Nevada, allows survivors to close accounts, but not access what’s inside them.

The House Judiciary Committee will decide whether this bill has a chance of becoming law in Montana.