Digital Legal Dilemma: Who Owns Data After Death?

No set of rules specifically dictating procedures on how an individual can inherit digital data

As we use social media every day, data is being collected. It has become one of the best diaries that a person can own in the digital age. From photos to posts to private messages, we leave a long digital footprint behind us.

But, this begs the question: who owns this data after we die?

With about one out of three people in the world have social media accounts like Facebook, this question has become a pressing legal issue for experts.

The issue is highlighted even more when last week, the family of a British girl who committed suicide told media that they weren’t able to access their daughter’s account anymore.

Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl from the UK, have committed suicide in 2017. Her parents told local media that their daughter’s Facebook and Instagram, which Facebook also owns, are now inaccessible. They say that they are hoping that their daughter’s social media might hold clues to why their daughter took her own life.

“It seems to me that the data on Molly’s phone should have become her parents’ property,” Russell’s father, Ian, told the BBC.

“She died without a will, she was 14, and everything else quite naturally returns to us as her parents and so should her data.”

Instagram declined to comment on the particular case as an inquest is ongoing.

The Facebook-owned social media giant said it is against its policies for someone to log into another person’s account, but it would consider legitimate requests for family members to access information, provided there is a court order.


Edina Harbinja, a senior lecturer in media and privacy law at Birmingham’s Aston University, said that the lack of rules and regulations to determine data ownership and digital inheritance makes cases like Russell’s complicated.

“There is a complete legal mess there,” Harbinja told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a landmark privacy law adopted last year; individuals have the right to get a copy of their data held by internet companies, or ask that it be deleted.

However, this policy is not clear with regards to digital and data inheritance. “The only owner of the personal data is the individual,” said Gabriel Voisin, a partner specializing in data protection and privacy at international law firm Bird & Bird.


Arguments arise that not everything that is shared on social media is personal. Photos, public posts, and comments are data that an individual has consented to be published; therefore, these data are not private.

This argument makes things more complicated. According to Harbhajan, things like photos or short compositions should be treated as intellectual property and should be inherited in accordance with copyright laws.

“The problem is how can they access that,” she said.

Ultimately, unless a clear set of rules are laid on the table as to how data can be accessed and shared afterlife, this issue will confuse law enforcement as well as the judiciary. Experts have stressed the importance of legislation that would dictate digital inheritance and governments should listen. /apr

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