AUSTIN (Nexstar) — When you pass away, someone takes control of your digital data. You have partial control over who ends up with the keys to your digital castle. Texas lawmakers studied data access for people who have died, reviewing digital privacy laws on the books and exploring additional options.
“Our lives are getting more digitalized, not less so,” estate and business succession attorney Harry Wolff told a panel of Texas state senators on Tuesday.
Ben Bentzin is a marketing lecturer at the McCombs Business School at the University of Texas at Austin. He has designated each of his digital accounts to one of his children for when he passes away. He wants to make sure his affairs are in order.
“Upon my death, one of my children will receive a notification that they have been designated as my successor, and they will be able to take over at that point,” Bentzin said.
“All the stuff that we used to put on paper and store in boxes and filing cabinets is the stuff we put on digital assets now, and your Google account, your Facebook account, your Microsoft account stores lots of important information that your family will need on your passing,” Bentzin said.
Bentzin talks about preserving digital assets with his students.
“If you don’t take care of those assets and they are not going to be available to your family members, and you don’t want them to just go away,” Bentzin said.
At Tuesday’s hearing, state senator Kelly Hancock, R-North Richland Hills, recognized that digital privacy needs to be explored further in Texas, calling it “Something we have to learn.”
Last year, lawmakers passed SB 1193, which gives trustees power to manage digital assets just as they would physical ones. It also covers liability for custodians of electronic accounts who make decisions in an effort to honor the wishes of the original user’s privacy.
“There’s so much data and no one really knows… what to do with it at this point,” social media agency executive Kristen Sussman said. She is CEO of Austin-based Social Distillery. Sussman said digital data access has become a global issue that needs regulation.
“There’s no walls on the internet that separate us,” Sussman mentioned.
“We don’t really know if it should be federally mandated, whether it should be at the state level, whether it should be pushed for by Facebook by Google or the companies that own all of this data,” Sussman explained.
Lawmakers also addressed social media privacy in the workforce and for students.
“It’s a huge gray area of the law,” Bentzin stated. “In surveys, over half of employers say they consider social media in the hiring process, and yet it’s a mine field for employers also because in looking at social media they may wind up being exposed to content that may be illegal for them to consider in the hiring process.”
“You have in your digital assets an opportunity to manage who has access while you are living and when you die, and it’s important that you set that matches your wishes,” Bentzin said.
Experts suggested searching within each digital account for information on how to turn it over in case of death. Those who are not as tech-savvy could hire a probate lawyer to assist.