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Death is so final, whereas life is full of possibilities—such as whether or not you take the steps to keep people out of your shit. But when you’re gone, so goes your watch over your data. Even if no one in the world knows or can guess your passwords, Apple will unlock your iCloud data to your family should they present the company with the proper paperwork.

For the relatives of someone who has passed away, that can be a great thing. They can save important photos, videos, messages, and files that the deceased may have fully intended to share but is now unable to. Of course, no one can ask the deceased if they want anyone rummaging through their personal data. I imagine for many reading this, there might be an explicit interest in not allowing people total access to their things—at least not at an unexpected moment’s notice.

For those that do want their family to access their iCloud backups when they’ve died, there’s a feature for that: Legacy Contact. For those who don’t want that, act now, or you run the risk of allowing your Apple ID and its contents to be seen by your kin once you’re gone.

Advanced Data Protection keeps your data safe in perpetuity

The only way to ensure that your Apple data stays secret long after you’re gone is to enable Advanced Data Protection. This is a feature Apple introduced with iOS 16.2, iPadOS 16.2, and macOS 13.1, which allows you to encrypt most of the data you backup to iCloud end-to-end. That includes device backups, Messages backups, iCloud Drive, Notes, Photos, Reminders, Safari bookmarks, Siri Shortcuts, Voice Memos, and Wallet Passes.

End-to-end encryption means you have the only keys to decrypt and access this data. Apple doesn’t have some secret backdoor for this type of encryption: Without one of your personal forms of authentication, this data stays scrambled and secret forever. It’s pretty hardcore from a privacy perspective: With typical iCloud backups, Apple has a key on their end to decrypt your data should you need them to, or if your family has the proper authority to do so. With Advanced Device Protection, your iCloud backups are only accessible by your personal keys.

Now, about those authentication methods: Your Apple ID password, of course, unlocks this data, but so does the passcode on your iPhone or iPad, as well as the login password on your Mac. In addition, when you set up Advanced Data Protection, Apple gives you the choice between one of two additional backup methods, in case you don’t have access to your Apple ID or your devices: First, you can designate a trusted contact that will be able to generate a code needed to unlock your account, or you can generate a 28-character code yourself that you’ll need to keep in a safe space. Again, Apple doesn’t have access to this code, so it’s on you to hold onto it.

For maximum post-death security, you’ll want to choose the 28-character code, and tell it to no one. The same goes for your passwords and passcodes: Anything that can be used to access your Apple ID and decrypt its data should be classified information. If you choose a recovery contact, make sure it’s someone like this Redditor: Their friend chose them as their legacy contact, and told them they did not want their data shared with anyone. When the friend died, the Redditor stood by their word, at the cost of their relationship with the friend’s family, claiming “[they] will never speak to me again.”

That’s another point to consider about this strategy: If you die unexpectedly, your friends and family are, obviously, going to be distraught. For many, having access to your photos and conversations is a comfort, same as being able to flip through scrapbooks or going through old letters. You may feel passionately that your data is your data, and that no one should have access to it when you’re gone. But know that decision will affect your loved ones differently, depending on how they feel about the situation. At the very least, don’t make one of your friends have to choose between your desires and your family’s. If you truly don’t want anyone accessing your Apple data, make it a solo venture: Generate that recovery code yourself and keep it safe.

To learn more about Advanced Device Protection and how to enable it for your iCloud data, check out our full guide on the feature.

Not even Apple can unlock your personal devices

The above is only pertinent to iCloud backups. If you’re worried about Apple unlocking your iPhone, iPad, or Mac to members of your family with the proper documentation, worry no longer. Apple may be able remove Activation Lock on your devices so that other people can use them, but that requires the devices to be wiped clean first. Without the passcode or password, there’s no getting into the data saved locally on your devices.

Again, if you want to keep your data safe, never share your passwords and passcodes with anyone. Consider changing your iPhone or iPad’s passcode to a strong and unique password instead, to decrease the risk of someone guessing your digits.

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