Image of treasured memories in a box.

Passing on your digital shoebox

In the light of a recent ruling in Germany, where the parents of a deceased teenager were given rights of inheritance to her full Facebook account, the issue of who owns our online assets after our death has once again raised its head.


Once upon a time, our memories were passed on through shoeboxes of photos stored under the bed or family albums passed from parent to child. Even though most of us now carry a digital camera every day and take more photos than ever before, the traditional photo album is now the preserve of special occasions and gifts. Every new app update makes editing, uploading and sharing easier and faster.


Facebook recently reported 2.23 billion active users every month. Working on the last reported average of 347 photos per user, back in 2011, that’s a staggering 773.81 billion images – without accounting for Instagram, which adds around another billion users to Facebook’s portfolio. In the tragic event of losing a loved one, we at least have a lasting legacy through an abundance of images and videos – but some are easier to access than others.


When a Facebook user dies, upon request their page can be changed to a memorial site. So, should you want to download an image from a family member’s Facebook account, it’s pretty straightforward – as long as you’re willing to cope with the compromised image resolution. But what of the originals?


From Apple’s iCloud, Google Drive to DropBox, there are too many places to store images to list. In the first instance, simply identifying which services a loved one used is a feat of investigation.

Image of padlock on a keyboard
Memories locked behind firewalls and red tape how do we adapt in the new digital age?

Unravelling a life lived online

When Rachel’s brother died, she quickly ran into difficulties when trying to uncover his digital footprint. “He did everything remotely. There was no current paperwork for anything. His utilities, his banking, his life was basically all locked away in an online world. We started with trying to access his phone, but that needed a fingerprint. Apple couldn’t help – even with a death certificate – as I had no way to prove that I was next of kin.”


She finally managed to unlock his phone, but the time it took to finally gain access to his online life even affected his funeral arrangements. “We didn’t know any of his contacts to let everyone know that he had died.”

It’s not simply a question of ownership, many under-standably just want more treasured memories of their loved ones or a way to gain a sense of closure from a sudden loss.

This experience is all too common. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands of queries on Apple support from relatives of deceased iCloud account holders. It’s not simply a question of ownership, many understandably just want more treasured memories of their loved ones or a way to gain a sense of closure from a sudden loss. The experience is complicated, emotional and stressful.


As you might imagine, this complexity opens a world of commercial opportunities to businesses who offer to deal with your digital presence after your death, but realistically, it should be possible to put in place a plan that will protect your privacy and give your loved ones access to everything they need to finalise your affairs – and remember you through your own ‘digital eyes’.

A photograph of polaroid memories
The traditional method of pictures in shoeboxes is no longer the norm.

Your passing, privacy policies and passwords

Mark Paton, European IP Counsel for Intellectual Property at Canon Europe Limited, is a member of Canon’s IP team, which has responsibility for Canon’s IP rights across the EMEA. He is well versed with the challenges around ownership of intellectual property rights. Mark suggests forward planning, including making clear your wishes concerning your digital footprint during your lifetime. “Today, more than ever before, it’s critical to make a Will sooner rather than later. Without one, your loved ones may find themselves in a situation similar to Rachel,” he warns. Mark emphasises the importance of seeking independent advice on estate planning from a qualified solicitor or financial advisor.  “Making your wishes clear in a Will – properly drafted and executed – should give your family clarity and go some way to protecting your digital legacy.”


As part of a Will, Mark suggests providing a statement of wishes which may contain:

  • A list of all your digital accounts, on all your devices.
  • Details of a password manager for your executor. (Be aware that depending on the account, sharing passwords may be a breach of the terms of service.)
  • State how you wish each account to be treated. Do you want the account deleted? Given a ‘legacy status’? Or the assets downloaded and passed on to a named person?

These straightforward steps may allow your executor to take control of your affairs, saving your family any unnecessary stress. He cautions, however, that social media has its own terms and conditions, which may supersede your wishes.

A photograph of a woman capturing a memory of a wedding with the bridal party.
Most of us carry a camera in our pockets every day and the sheer number of digitally stored images is staggering.

The adage of “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product” rings absolutely true here. In Facebook’s own words “if you share a photo on Facebook, you give us permission to store, copy, and share it with others (again, consistent with your settings) such as service providers that support our service or other Facebook Products you use.” In short, it’s important to be aware that even if you delete the Facebook account of a deceased loved one, the images on it can live on through shares and, for a limited time, back-up copies.


Ultimately, we’ve reached a point where all our digital assets – including the images we create and share – are controlled by a tangled and inconsistent web of terms and conditions, policies, and legal precedents and rights. At the moment, there is no straightforward way to maintain or exercise control over what happens to these when we pass. So, in an effort to avoid uncertainties with respect to how our online affairs will be dealt with appropriately we should take matters into our own hands and ensure that our loved ones and legacies are protected.

Written by Anna Shaw

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