- A UK lawmaker wants your family to get “default access” to your phone and data after you die.
- A privacy-rights expert has called the proposed legislation “completely inappropriate.”
- The lawmaker, Ian Paisley MP, said there was a “favorable wind” in Westminster.
Privacy experts are ringing alarm bells about proposed legislation in the UK that would give people’s next of kin sweeping access to their digital archives after they die.
As it stands, major firms like Facebook and Apple will grant account access to family members if a loved one dies but usually restrict what they can read or require a court order. If an iPhone is locked with a passcode, and the dead person hasn’t left a legacy contact for their iCloud account, for example, it can be a long process.
The Digital Devices (Access for Next of Kin) Bill proposes giving the next of kin of a dead or incapacitated person access to digital archives without requiring them to go to court. It includes access to both goods a person has bought online — like music, books, and television — and data like photographs, emails, and messages. The bill was introduced in Parliament on Tuesday by Ian Paisley, a member of Parliament from the Democratic Unionist Party.
The idea is to give comfort to the bereaved, who can struggle to retrieve photos or other sentimental items from phones. Few people leave instructions for what happens to their phones after they die.
But handing over this level of access is an overreach, according to Elina Harbinja, an expert on digital legacies post-mortem, told Insider.
“If you access the device, you can just imagine what other applications and private communications one can access. It’s completely, completely inappropriate,” Harbinja said.
Because Paisley isn’t a government minister, the bill is automatically allocated less time in Parliament and unlikely to get past the committee stage. But private members’ bills can sometimes inform future legislation even if they don’t pass.
Paisley envisions his proposals resetting the relationship between tech companies, people’s rapidly expanding digital footprints, and UK law.
“Our law has not kept up,” he told Insider. “The tech companies do exceptionally well in Britain and selling their equipment and technology in the UK, that they wouldn’t want to lose that market.”
Whether a dead person would want to give their next of kin automatic access to their entire digital archive is a big question.
“If they’ve never even thought this through, they wouldn’t necessarily make the presumption that it would go to their, it seems slightly loosely defined, next of kin,” Andrew Harvey, a data-protection officer at the Information and Records Management Society, said.
The bill would also have ramifications for those who are alive. Granting access to a dead person’s conversations with friends, family, and other contacts, who have their own expectations of privacy, would represent a major privacy breach, according to legal experts.
Paisley said he was open to allowing people to opt out. “But I think people know that, ultimately, the material will be available to a third party. I think most people would be happy with that,” he said.
The bill proposes much more expansive access than is available to next of kin in the US.
Tech companies have come under scrutiny from grieving parents and spouses wanting access to sentimental memories locked in a dead person’s phone. Under Apple’s iCloud terms of service, a person’s data essentially dies with them unless they have nominated a “legacy” contact who can retrieve the data with proof of death and an access key.
Legacy contacts, which Google and Facebook also offer, “aren’t perfect,” Harbinja told Insider. They have low uptake, in part because tech companies “haven’t advertised them,” she added. “Death isn’t sexy,” she said.
But “default access is a terribly disproportionate solution,” she said.
The bill seems to have at least pockets of support among the Conservative Party. Damian Collins, a Conservative MP and the chair of the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, is a sponsor of Paisley’s bill.
“I think we have a favorable wind,” Paisley told Insider.
The Digital Devices (Access for Next of Kin) Bill is scheduled for a second reading in Parliament on February 4.