Bill would give access to digital data of deceased loved ones

- The mother of a University of Minnesota student who froze to death near the Stone Arch Bridge more than two years ago will testify Tuesday in support of a bill that would force technology companies to allow access to the digital data of the deceased.

What happened

In December 2013, 19-year-old Jake Anderson was walking a girl home from a party when he somehow ended up at the bottom of a riverbank near the Stone Artch Bridge and died. The medical examiner said he died of accidental hypothermia.

Jake’s parents, Kristi and Bill, believe their son’s cell phone may hold some answers as to what happened in the final moments of his life. But since Jake’s death was ruled accidental, the phone company has refused to unlock his cell phone, saying they are protecting his data privacy rights.

"We don't know what's in there.  But, his last moment's his last days, pings from the cell tower that may have told us how he got where to got where he completely didn't belong," Kristi said told the Minnesota Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday. 

BACKGROUND – Family fights for digital data after their son passed

Digital Access Act

The Anderson family is now working to create a law that would allow one person to access the digital data of the deceased. Kristi testified in support of the Digital Access Act, which, if passed, could finally give the family some closure.

The bill would allow people to use online tools or wills to grant all access, limited access or no access to their digital records once they die and name the person, or fiduciary, who can have that information.

In the absence of such permission, the bill only grants access to a catalog of communications – a list of address of senders and recipients and dates and times the messages were sent, not the messages themselves.

Opponents of the bill are concerned about privacy.

"It's important to realize that for the good of the living we shouldn't soil the dead,” Richard Nuemiester, a privacy advocate said.

However, the bill’s author, Sen. David Osmek (R-District 33) says all digital services would default toward protecting data.

"You still keep everything private unless you specifically take an action which allows it and identifies who the person is,” Osmek said. “This is not a global opportunity for people to snoop at all."

Nothing in the proposed law would retroactively allow the Anderson’s to retrieve the data from their son's phone. At this point, they say it is about helping other families.

"We just want to help prevent it from happening to somebody [else],” Bill said.


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