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New South Wales ponders post-mortem data protection laws

When you log off forever, who can access your social media accounts? And your Bitcoin?

The Australian state of New South Wales has ordered an inquiry into what happens to your social media accounts and digital assets once you’re dead.

The State’s Law Reform Commission has been tasked with probing “whether NSW needs legislation to regulate who can access the digital assets of a person who has died or is incapacitated.”

Attorney-general Mark Speakman said “The Law Reform Commission will also look at whether additional privacy protections are needed in situations where a person hasn’t made arrangements for anyone to take control of their social media or access their private emails.”

The motivation for the review is problems assigning rights to digital assets after death, given that the bulk of the laws governing succession were written years before internet use became widespread. Curiously, however, NSW’s Succession Act was amended just last week.

The answer to Speakman’s question about whether NSW needs new laws is almost certainly “Yes”, because legal brawls over digital assets are already happening and laws have appeared in other jurisdictions to deal with the situation. Several US States, for example, have legislated “Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets” to allow trustees of an estate or incapacitated person to access digital assets.

Social networks have also anticipated the problem. Facebook already offers the chance to either delete your account or have it re-set as a “memorialized account” tended by a legacy contact. Google’s Inactive Account Manager has options for post-mortem account activity.

Speakman’s call for comment, and input from social networks, should therefore yield many precedents NSW can use to revise its own laws. ®

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