AFTER we die, our bodies are reduced to dust or ash, through burial or cremation. The fate of the digital corpuses we leave behind is rather more complicated. Before the advent of internet-hosted storage and services, your digital remains would have been accessible only to those with physical access to your computers, and only then if you had not applied encryption or password protection. But these days many people leave traces of their lives spread across the internet. Facebook knows who we love and hate, Google knows what we are interested in, Amazon knows what we buy, and so on. Specialist services may even store information about your genetic makeup (23andme) or archives of your files (Dropbox, CrashPlan, and many others). Who owns your data when you’re dead?
No one, not even a probate lawyer, will tell you that the process of transferring property by writing a will—or dealing with the absence of one—is a simple matter. But when it comes to financial assets, physical goods or property, thousands of years of tradition and many hundreds of years of legal precedent provide a basis on which to proceed in even the most esoteric cases. Digital assets that are stored on shared servers in the cloud, by contrast, are so new that legal systems have not yet caught up. Five American states have passed legislation to provide executors and other parties with a legal basis on which to assert authority over digital assets, and others are considering similar rules, but these laws vary widely in what they cover (the oldest of them covers only e-mail). There are no federal laws. The same is true in other countries. To complicate matters further, internet firms may be based in different countries from their users and may store data in servers in many countries, making it unclear whose laws would apply.