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.

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