Matthew Abela loved cars. At the time of his death, the 21-year-old from Christchurch was restoring a drift car to take on the competition circuit. He was buying, selling, trading and fixing car parts through Facebook messenger.
His mum, Karren Johnson, wanted to access his messages to track down all of the missing pieces and complete her son’s project – he would have wanted her to finish it, she said.
“Wherever he is … I think he’d be happy to see it finished.”
But just 13 days after his death, his Facebook page was memorialised without her prior knowledge or consent.
Facebook began memorialising profiles in 2015 as a way to honour the memory of loved ones. Profiles became tribute pages, displaying messages from friends and images previously posted. The only features that weren’t accessible for designated users who managed the accounts – called legacies – were some photos, security information, and private messages.
These private messages were what Johnson sought, and she was trying to get answers from the “big faceless entity” so she could finish what her son started.
“I can’t bring him back, so I’ve just got to do everything I can.”
Providing family members with access to private messages of the deceased was a contentious topic at Facebook. Its Hard Questions series in 2017 outlined the struggle between weighing the interest of survivors, determining what the deceased would have wanted, and protecting the privacy of those on the other end of the messages.
“We generally can’t turn over private messages on Facebook without affecting other people’s privacy. In a private conversation between two people, we assume that both people intended the messages to remain private,” Facebook’s director of global policy management Monika Bickert wrote.
But that didn’t stop Johnson from trying. She lodged a complain with the Help Centre, messaged the company through its app, and tagged it in a post, but was slowly losing hope. She wasn’t wanting to trawl through all of his private communications, just track down the business agreements he made through the platform.
“I know there’s going to be stuff in there that I probably don’t want to read and there’s probably stuff in there that will make me blush, I don’t want to read that, I just want access to the wheeling and dealing he did with the car parts.”
While it was Facebook’s policy not to give family members access to the private messages of the deceased, there were exceptions. The platform would provide information such as messages, ads that were clicked, pokes, and security settings in response to a valid will or other legal consent document that expressed clear consent.
In 2018, Facebook was ordered by a German federal court to give the mother of a deceased 15-year-old access to her account in its entirety, including private messages. The court found that the digital assets were to be treated like physical assets, such as letters or private diaries, and the survivors of the deceased should inherit them.
Facebook failed to respond to specific questions relating to access of deceased’s private messages. However, a spokesperson said their team was looking into Johnson’s query.