Google Inactive Account Manager: Protecting Your Data After You Die

By Todd R. Weiss  |  Posted 2013-04-13

Google Inactive Account Manager: Protecting Your Data After You Die

Google has created an "Inactive Account manager" tool to allow account holders to manage their digital lives, including the availability of their stored photos, videos, emails and more, in the event of death or long inactivity.

The new tool was unveiled in an April 11 post by Andreas Tuerk, a Google product manager, on the Google Data Liberation Blog.

"Not many of us like thinking about death — especially our own," wrote Tuerk. "But making plans for what happens after you’re gone is really important for the people you leave behind. So today, we’re launching a new feature that makes it easy to tell Google what you want done with your digital assets when you die or can no longer use your account."

Using the Inactive Account Manager, which is available through a user's Google settings page, will allow users to tell the company what to do with their Gmail messages and data from several other Google services if the account becomes inactive, whether due to a long period of inactivity or the user's death.

"For example, you can choose to have your data deleted—after three, six, nine or 12 months of inactivity," wrote Tuerk. "Or you can select trusted contacts to receive data from some or all of the following services: +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube."

Before data deletion would actually occur, a built-in protection would be implemented, where users would first be warned via a text message to a cell phone and an email to a secondary address that was provided by the user, wrote Tuerk.

"We hope that this new feature will enable you to plan your digital afterlife — in a way that protects your privacy and security—and make life easier for your loved ones after you’re gone," he wrote.

Google is raising the sensitive but important topic as governmental leaders across the United States have been proposing new laws and protections about what should be done with people's personal data in the event of their deaths.

The issue has also been the focus of a growing number of cases across the nation where family members, friends and significant others grapple to obtain or remove the personal social media, data and other digital accounts of loved ones after their deaths. Various social media Websites have different policies about how they will handle such situations, and the processes are still evolving.

The case of a 16-year-old girl who died in 2012 and whose digital data became the focus of a dispute over access to her social media accounts was highlighted in January in an article in The Wall Street Journal.

Google Inactive Account Manager: Protecting Your Data After You Die

Google's new Inactive Account Manager will not allow relatives or friends to gain any kind of direct access to the accounts of deceased users.  What the tool does allow is for a user to designate which data can be shared with their designees using fine-grained controls that allow specific content to be shared. The recipient of that content, whether it is photos, files, emails or whatever related to the deceased member's Google accounts, will receive the data in a download but won't be able to access the affected account to retrieve it, according to Google.

The Inactive Account Manager also provides an option to completely delete a user's account after a specified period of inactivity up to one year.

More than a dozen Google services users posted comments about the new tool on the Google blog, with most applauding the move.

"This is so important!" wrote Debra Schroer. "You should be able to [add] something to a genealogy page as well, so that when ancestors are seeking you, they will find about who you were, where you lived, what you liked, etc. Nicely done, really! Bravo!"

Another user, Tom, wrote: "I think this sounds great, but I'm on Google Apps which is not supported. I realize there are some other considerations with Google Apps accounts, but I hope you will find a way to extend this new feature to those users."

Tengo Duende wrote: "This is a truly excellent, sensitive and proactive step. Previous comments do highlight areas where it might be improved but as it has only just been rolled out no doubt it can only improve and mature with input and experience. Full marks to Google for the release of such a forward-looking approach to users' virtual identities. When we now have so much invested in their online lives, it's time that the legacy issues after our physical demise [were] taken seriously."

Another user, ario wrote, "This is more important than a will in some ways. It's an incredible feature that all sites with personal data should provide."

Saul Langsam, a wills and estates attorney in Philadelphia, said that situations like this are already becoming the focus of legal battles concerning the data of deceased persons and that such scenarios will likely increase in the future.

"We have to get up-to-speed on this," said Langsam. "This certainly makes sense because you've got to address this asset, which is people's data. It's always an interesting question about who owns that content."

The issue, he said, is that the law is still evolving about whether such content is owned by the user who posted it, the company (such as Google) that is storing it, or by some other party, such as an Internet provider. "There is going to be an entire area of this that is going to explode," said Langsam. "It is going to focus on the legal arguments about content. It's going to be fertile for litigations for years to come."

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