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10 of your best comments about passwords after death

CBC Forum: Readers weigh in on our story about a widow who went to Apple to get her dead husband's password.

Readers weigh in on the murky issue of ownership of digital property after a death

A Victoria widow is outraged over Apple's demand that she obtain a court order to retrieve her dead husband's password so she can play games on an iPad. (Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)

Our Go Public story about a widow who went to Apple to get her dead husband's password — and was told she'd need a court order — has raised many questions.

Our readers were more than happy to answer them and to pose a few of their own in our first CBC Forum — a live hosted discussion where readers can talk about stories of national interest and the issues that arise from them. We'll have a new topic every day — sometimes two.

Below you'll find 10 of the best comments from readers during our discussion about the ownership of digital property after death, followed by the complete discussion in our live blog.

Many readers were happy to know Apple was being strict about privacy.

(Note that usernames are not necessarily the commenters' names. Some comments have been altered slightly to correct spelling and to conform to CBC style.)

Tom Aaron: I don't want anyone requesting my passwords and receiving them. Talk about opening up another level of scams — especially on the elderly.

Michael Tea: There should indeed be a process available to next of kin, but it should absolutely require opting-in from the account holder. It would be concerning if Apple and other technology firms provided access to all of your data after your death. They are private documents. I applaud Apple for being this firm about digital privacy. With that said, there needs to be an improvement in the way digital ownership is explained to older customers; it should have been made clear that the private account holder maintains ownership of their purchase history and data. Perhaps introduce a properly shared account with delegated access similar to financial accounts?

Voice_Of_Reason: I don't disagree with Apple's reluctance here. I'd rather have high security than lax controls over access. Online accounts and emails are incredibly sensitive — it isn't just about games. Your account is often your entire identity. An email gives you access to almost everything you do online.

Others (a smaller group) took Apple to task.

Rational Voice: Why in the world should Apple require a court order when the transfer of real estate, pensions and other much more critical items have rational requirements. My bet is that this is purely a dollar-based move on Apple's part. If you can't hand it down then you can sell the same items (or bits/bytes) again. The article says they're working on it, not that it has been resolved and this "generous" solution only came to be after the issue was brought to light on a national news source. As for the reset-the-device crowd — you'd still have lost access to everything he had stored after resetting.

CCGodin: I was fortunate that my husband left me a coded list of all of his, my and our children's passwords. I refer to it often. I sometimes felt companies were insensitive. A spouse has a legal right to her husband's property; Apple could be kinder.

Some readers raised interesting questions about what it means to "own" anything digitally.

Nepgear: When you buy something online, aren't you basically renting a service? The company still owns everything, the games and services and all, and all you've done is buy the right to access them and specifically for yourself. The games and servers aren't inherited by you since the deceased person didn't buy them, and the licence never pertained to more than one user in the first place. Now, if it did pertain to multiple users, that's a different issue. However, one can argue that the account was licensed to one user, but that user can then authorize access to another limited set of users.

Tim Smith: Software and online media have always been sold as you "having access to" but not "owning" the media. Maybe this is part of protecting the copyrights because owning it means you can alter it, etc. etc. but it's a restriction consumers have never really understood. There will have to be a complete rewrite of copyright laws soon, I think, and we need to start taking into account the 21st century reality, instead of the 19th century when they were written.

Others noted that it matters what exactly is being accessed.

Jdev: There are two parts to this really:

  1. Property rights. Digital assets are no different than any other sort of asset, they have value and must be transferable as part of the estate/will
  2. Accounts and internet history. This is very different and engages privacy. Unless specifically granted access as part of the estate, all accounts should be deleted once any property is transferred out.

Unfortunately, very few, if any, companies have the ability to do this or the desire to make it part of their operating procedure, as it's a logistical nightmare that requires expert staff who can tell the difference between phishing attempts and legitimate death certificates. It also bumps up their bottom line to have people re-purchase assets they've already purchased on a spouse's account.

deemi: It seems that a lot of comments fixate on "passwords." The client in question wanted access to apps/tools that were used in the household. This does not apply to the deceased person's personal correspondence, search history, purchasing history, etc. It's pretty clear that they were married, and shared a household (including computer apps and tools.) Restrict the personal data, allow access to the apps/tools.

Finally, some offered advice to keep others from facing a similar situation.

D. Rand Rowlands: Perhaps the will is out of date. I did mine three years ago, and they have a form requesting passwords to accounts and what should be done with each account. That said, common IT practice is to change accounts every three months if not more frequently, and you do not want to constantly update the will for that.

One solution is a password-keeper application to store all other passwords. If you don't want it in the cloud, passwords can be stored offline as a Word file on a USB key which is only used to update the other accounts. The will can then list this password keeper account information. 

Big hassle? You bet. It's like keeping the spare key to your front door in a locked box buried under the gnome on the left as you approach the door and then keeping the key to the box in the cap of the garden light near the rose bush that died last summer. Damn, now I have to move the box.

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