Protecting digital assets

Increasingly peoples' lives are lived and stored online. Lawyers are calling for the Government to introduce new powers to enable people to decide what happens to their digital legacy when they die. Such protection would include the power for online data to be included in Wills.

The phrase 'digital asset' includes all content, files and accounts stored online or on computers, smart phones and tablets etc. Examples of digital assets include: music that has been downloaded, a persons' email, Facebook or twitter accounts, photographs and videos stored on a computer, eBooks and online bank accounts.

It is important to understand that in many cases, a person does not own the digital asset. An individual merely has a licence to use the services of a website.

Consumers are constantly reminded of the ever increasing threat of cybercrime and of the importance of regularly changing passwords, having reasonably complex passwords and of course not writing down details such as passwords etc. The advice given to consumers during their lifetime to protect their digital assets can have the effect of making such assets very difficult to access after they have died.

The difficulties of dealing with digital assets after death have been in the headlines again recently. A German court held that the parents of their teenage daughter did not have the right to access her Facebook account after her death. The case was very distressing. The parents were trying to access their daughter's messages to establish whether or not she had been bullied. However Facebook argued that permitting access to their daughter's account would compromise the privacy of her contacts.

In England and Wales ownership of online assets (e.g. social media posts) rests with the service provider. Families can ask providers for accounts to be deleted or for partial access to them but it is clear that this is a very difficult area.

In this newsletter we often remind readers of the importance of making a Will. At the moment it is not possible to make comprehensive provisions for digital assets in a Will. However there are steps which can be taken to try to mitigate the difficulty and distress which relatives may face.  For example, it is possible to make a hard copy list of digital assets for Executors and inform the Executors of the existence of the list.

If you would like to discuss this or any other aspects of making a Will contact us.