What happens to your digital data when you die?

When a loved one passes away, knowing what to do with the belongings they left behind is often a difficult task at a difficult time.

Even if they left a will or other instructions, locating every item, account or any other asset can be a truly Herculean task at a time when these things are the last thing on your mind.

Adding to the complexity, so much of lives today lives in the digital space. Personal emails, photos and text messages are just some of the data stored on cloud servers around the world owned by the tech giants.

If you’re gasping at the thought of leaving all that digital info to strangers, you’re not alone. So can you give your digital life to someone else when you’re gone? It turns out the answer depends on who your data is stored with.

Apple has recently introduced its Legacy Contacts feature, which allows you to nominate a trusted contact to be given access to your iCloud account in the event of your death.

Read: How can the dead send emails? The ethical dilemma of digital souls

You can nominate a Legacy Contact in the privacy settings of an Apple device and a unique code will be sent to them. If you pass away, this contact can send this code (along with a copy of your death certificate) to request access to your iCloud and everything stored in it.

Any photos, videos, iMessages, emails, files, calendars and contacts stored on Apple’s servers will be accessible by the nominee. It’s not possible to nominate items you might prefer your relatives didn’t see, so be careful who you pick as your contact.

Legacy contacts will not be able to view or access payment information, subscriptions, licensed media, or Keychain information.

Google, owner of the Android operating system, has a slightly different approach your digital footprint after death. In true Google style, it is highly customisable.

Google’s Inactive Account Manager allows users to nominate a contact to receive access to your Google account once it has been inactive for a certain period of time.

Read: Cloud computing explained

Unlike Apple, you can nominate precisely which data you would like your contact to have access to, and have the rest automatically deleted. You can also nominate no contact at all, and instead have your entire Google profile deleted after a period of inactivity.

Social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram give users the choice to either have their accounts permanently deleted, or ‘memorialised’ after their deaths. If a user chooses to have their account memorialised, they can nominate a trusted contact to manage the account.

You may think it possible to leave instructions on your digital life in a will, but the fact this data is stored on hardware owned by private organisations makes this difficult.

When setting up these accounts, users enter into agreements subject to terms and conditions that don’t always mean you truly own your data.

But Smith Family Law says there are still legal steps you can take to prepare your digital assets for when you pass away.

Read: Australians want more control over their personal information

“When a person makes a will, they should give thought to their digital assets and accounts in their estate planning,” the firm says.

“They should prepare a list or private register of all their digital assets and relevant usernames and passwords for each account or service, along with instructions for a relative of executor to take over. Persons that have numerous accounts may use a password manager.

“They should store this list or register with their will and keep it in a safe and secure location. The details should not be included in the will, as the will becomes a public document when probate is granted.”

Who would you trust to handle your digital information after you die? Do you think there should be more legal avenues for protecting your data in your will? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Brad Lockyer