Social Media Privacy and US Law

For many people, privacy is a treasured right.

We might choose to share a lot about ourselves online, some of us more than others, but for the most part, we still enjoy the ability to decide who can know our personal details. However, many people might be surprised to learn that privacy isn’t as black-and-white as they might think, or that your rights can vary widely based on where you live.

Unlike some key privacy rulings in Europe, that has a long history of expecting certain online protections, courts and lawmakers in the US are still wrestling with how new technology affects your privacy. This is especially true after your death; some advocates—and international courts—have argued that your loved ones are not entitled to information from your Facebook account. On the other hand, some states have countered that the information in your computer is exactly the same as your heirs inheriting a locked file cabinet. They can get into it legally if they are your rightful next of kin, and therefore, they should have access to your digital file cabinet as well.

Unfortunately, this type of privacy is a thorny issue with valid arguments on both sides.

For example, imagine you have an auto payment set up to be withdrawn from your bank account monthly. Typically, an email arrives shortly beforehand, reminding you of the upcoming withdrawal. Without access to your accounts, your grieving loved ones won’t receive the email and can’t stop the transaction from being deducted from your estate.

At the same time, critics have pointed out that your email account will contain information about many, many third-parties. Those individuals or organizations didn’t give permission for someone else to read the correspondence, especially if it’s business-related or sensitive in some way. Again, though, some courts have already treated those emails as if your next of kin had legally opened your mail. If they can read it from your curbside mailbox, they can read it from your digital inbox.

Experts recommend you leave behind clear instructions about what happens to your digital content and online accounts.

Some tech-savvy individuals have assigned “password heirs” who are able to call up access to social media accounts, cloud storage accounts, and even hardware like smartphones and laptops. These digital heirs may not always be family members, though, especially if there are aspects of the deceased’s online presence that they don’t want to be shared with people they were close to.


Contact the Identity Theft Resource Center for toll-free, no-cost assistance at (888) 400-5530. For on-the-go assistance, check out the free ID Theft Help App from ITRC.

Read next: How Data Breaches Affect Your Identity

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