Google tool manages online data after death

E-mail accounts, online photo albums and social-networking sites leave extensive digital footprints. But what should happen to that data after we die?

Google addressed that question this week by introducing a tool that gives users the option to pass that information on to loved ones or wipe it from its system altogether.

Planning “your digital afterlife” – a phrase Google uses on its website – is aimed at keeping the company out of messy family affairs. Privacy laws prohibit Google from sharing personal information, even with a user’s closest surviving relatives. That’s why the company needs to have users set those options while they are living.

“Information can be perceived as an asset,” said Bradley Shear, a Bethesda, Md.-based lawyer who specializes in social-media law. He recommends that people leave log-in information for online accounts in a separate envelope alongside their wills. The issue is becoming more relevant as consumers convert more of their financial records, business documents and personal memories into digital formats.

Google spokeswoman Nadja Blagojevich said the service – innocuously named the Inactive Account Manager – was developed after users told the company they needed a way to deal with the issue of accessing data after death.

The tool enables people to pick “trusted contacts” who can receive information from various Google services – Gmail, Picasa Web Albums and YouTube – if they don’t log into their accounts for a set period of time.

Photos, for instance, can be sent to family members, while Gmail messages and online documents can go to a business partner. Account holders can choose to delete their data altogether after three, six, nine or 12 months.

Shear cautioned, however, that users should be sure to keep their information current as well, in case of divorce, estrangement or other changes.

“It would be like forgetting to change the beneficiary of an insurance policy,” he said. “If you’re going to use this service you have to remember who gets the data and keep it active.”

Other companies offer similar services. Facebook, for example, allows users’ family members or friends to memorialize the Facebook pages of those who have passed away. The company leaves the information in the profiles up, but does not allow them to accept new friend requests. To obtain other information from the accounts, Facebook requires a court order.

Family members can request that profiles be removed, Facebook has said.

Some states have proposed legislation to deal with data after death. A New Hampshire state representative has introduced legislation that would give an estate’s executor control over social-networking accounts. Other states such as Rhode Island and Connecticut have laws that give executors control over e-mail accounts.

More in Local News

Inslee’s budget solves school funding with help from carbon

His budget would use reserves to boost education, then replenish them with a carbon tax or fee.

Man, 29, injured by shots fired at Everett thrift store

The gunfire followed an argument in the parking lot of Value Village on Evergreen Way.

Police: He made an appointment, then tried to rob the bank

A lawyer is accused of donning a fake beard and telling a teller that a gunman was outside.

Lynnwood robbery leads to lockdown at Edmonds schools

Edmonds police said it was just a precaution as they search around Edmonds-Woodway High School.

Marysville 7-Eleven hit by armed robbers

Officers set up a perimeter and brought in a police dog, but the man couldn’t be found.

In adult court, four teens plead not guilty to murder

Prosecutors allege they worked together to plan and execute a drug robbery in Everett.

2 women struck, injured while crossing busy roads

The first happened Wednesday night in Everett. The second was Thursday morning in Edmonds.

Lives were on the line

After an estimated 350K emergency calls over 35 years, dispatcher Steve Williams is set to retire.

Drive-by shooting reported in Marysville neighborhood

Police said there was no evidence to indicate it was targeted at a specific person or property.

Most Read