What happens to your online data when you die?

On: October 2, 2011
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About Andrian Georgiev
Bulgarian. Worked 4 years as a business technology reporter at Capital Weekly /capital.bg/. Graduated from Sofia University in Public Relations in 2010. Interested in product development for the web. Favourites: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos.


Lively topic in the house. Cnet.com describes the tangle:

The Marine, Justin Ellsworth, 20, was killed in November by a roadside bomb in Falluja while assisting civilian evacuations before the large-scale military offensive against insurgents in the city, according to a report in the Detroit Free Press. But when Ellsworth’s father John tried to recover his e-mail account, he was barred due to Yahoo’s policy of not giving e-mail passwords to anyone besides the account holder.

Currently Idaho and Oklahoma are working on legislation that addresses the ownership of online passwords after death. Nevertheless the legal field has a lot of catching up to do:

Google’s Gmail service may provide admittance to an “authorized representative” in some cases, while Yahoo [usually denies] access without having an order from the court. Then again, Facebook allows survivors to establish a memorial page or [delete the] account. The problem [for] family members is [that fighting in court to] gain access to [social networking] accounts, comes with [huge] court and attorney fees.

There are at least two startups that distribute your social network passwords to relatives after you die.

Here’s how PassMyWill works:

On the site you create an account with your name and enter who your next of kin is and their email address. You also enter an encryption key that the recipient would know (i.e. the last four digits of your social security number). And then you enter the data, passwords and more that you want your next of kin to takeover once you pass. When you die, this information will be passed on to the recipient.

So how does PassMyWill figure out when you are actually dead? You connect your Facebook and Twitter accounts on the site, and the startup will monitor how often you are posting and what is being posted on your wall. Once PassMyWill is convinced you may be gone, your next of kin receives the ‘Dead Man’s Switch’ e-mail.

LifeEnsured also lets you manage your online accounts on PayPal, Flickr, etc. so your loved ones could receive the passwords for your digital heritage.

Or, you could just write down your master password (for Gmail) and lock it in a safebox.

It would be interesting to examine the current practices of social networks and if online services such as PassMyWill are better than a sheet of paper. Such an analysis would be even more insightful if it observes if there are differences in the policies of local online companies.

For starters, here is a nice presentation about the current practices of social networks:

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