As a college-aged student whose life is mostly coordinated by a computer and smartphone, it is easy to forget that my generation is not the only one that uses technology for work and fun. Take, for instance, Facebook’s new policy that allows for users to designate a friend or family member as their legacy contact to manage their Facebook account after their death. Though death might seem far away for most users my age, technology companies have been forced to come up with procedures for dealing with the accounts of the deceased. In Facebook’s case, the procedure allows for a person’s page to be memorialized and allows for someone to manage the remaining account in a limited capacity.
This relatively easy system stands in contrast to Apple’s system for accessing accounts tied to its popular services such as iTunes, iCloud and the App Store. According to the terms and conditions that users must agree to, Apple users have no right of survivorship, which means that upon death, accounts will be terminated and all contents will be deleted. Unlike Facebook, Apple does not currently have an automated system to deal with deceased users, and it requires survivors to contact its support team on a case-by-case basis. As one could imagine, this could be an incredibly frustrating experience for loved ones who have to deal with so much when they lose someone.
In fact, Canadian Apple user Peggy Bush recently highlighted the ineffectiveness of Apple’s system when her husband David Bush died in August. While her husband had an Apple account in his name, they shared an iPad and Bush enjoyed playing card games to pass time. After her husband died, the app that Bush used stopped working and she needed to re-download it, but she was unable to do so without the password. What she thought would be a simple call to Apple’s support hotline turned into a two-month waiting game as Apple requested a death certificate and later, a court order. Lacking the wherewithal to fight Apple in court, Bush’s daughter wrote a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, as well as to CBC News, a Canadian news company that publicized the story. Eventually Bush was granted access to her husband’s account, and Apple issued an apology saying that there had been a “misunderstanding.”
Cases like these should not have to rely on media pressure to be resolved. Apple should implement new procedures to unlock accounts of the deceased and not inflict more pain on those suffering from the loss of a loved one. In the meantime, Apple users can put their account details in their will to ensure that they are passed along to their survivors. In a broader sense, users of online services should take advantage of features like Facebook’s legacy contact and share their passwords to important accounts with their loved ones.
Fortunately, there are exciting developments, which seem long overdue, that are incorporating digital belongings into inheritance laws. Delaware is leading this front and passed a law in 2014 that gives heirs complete control of digital accounts, a law which wold have made it easier for Bush to get her husband’s account password. I hope and expect to see similar laws passed nationwide across the world in the coming years, as our digital identities become ever more important.