What Happens to Your Email After You Die?

December 1, 2009
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image This article is not directly funeral related but it is a question that could get asked to the funeral director at some point. You yourself my be wondering the answer as well. You someone who uses email or social networks a lot, this is a great article. I would love to hear your thoughts. Have you been asked about email and social network accounts when making arrangements with a family?

IN a digital world your deepest secrets no longer die with you. Andrew Ramadge reports on what happens to your private emails when you pass away.

REMEMBER that time you poured your heart out in an email to your best friend after one too many glasses of wine?

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Or that sexy message from an old lover that made you blush at work?

Well, if you die, your family and others could end up reading them.

Web email services owned by internet giants Google and Microsoft have a policy of keeping your data after you die and letting your next of kin or the executor of your estate access it.

There is no way for users to flag that they don’t want this to happen and no recourse under Australia’s existing privacy laws. More than one in four Australians uses webmail, with around six and a half million people logging on to one or more of the top three providers Hotmail, Gmail or Yahoo! in September, according to Nielsen Online NetView.

Unlike a shoebox in the attic, these services can hold tens of thousands of messages. Accounts with Google’s Gmail can hold up to 7GB ? or roughly 70,000 emails with a small to medium picture attached to each.

And they archive the messages you’ve written as well as received.

When it comes to deleting the data, Microsoft’s Hotmail will remove an account if it is inactive for 270 days, while Gmail leaves the responsibility to the next of kin.

Of the top three providers, only Yahoo! refuses to supply emails to anyone after a user has died. The user’s next of kin can ask for the account to be closed, but cannot gain access to it.

A Yahoo! spokesperson said the only exception to this rule would be if the user specified otherwise in their will.

Australian privacy laws do not cover the emerging problem of what happens to your web-based data when you die. The Privacy Act only refers to people who are alive.

On top of that, many of the most popular web services are not covered by local privacy laws because they are based in the US.

The subject has also proved problematic for social networking sites Facebook and MySpace. More than eight million Australians visited one or both of those sites in September, according to Nielsen’s figures.

Facebook has recently publicised a feature called memorialisation that lets the family of deceased users keep their profile page online as a virtual tribute.

Turning a profile into a memorial will remove sensitive information from the page and restrict access to the deceased’s friends. The family will not be allowed to log in to the account or access private messages, but can request that it be taken down.

MySpace on the other hand says it addresses the issue of family access to sensitive data on a “case by case basis”.

A spokesperson for MySpace could not rule out letting a user’s next of kin log into their profile ? potentially giving them access to private messages.

There is no way for users to tell MySpace that they don’t want this to happen, however the site said it was “a good idea that we are exploring”.

Read on for a summary of the policies of popular email and social networking sites:

Hotmail

Hotmail has a policy of deleting email accounts if they are not touched for 270 days. If you die, your next of kin would be able to access your account within that period by proving their identity and supplying a death certificate.

A spokesperson said: “Microsoft’s policy allows next of kin to gain access to the content of the account of the deceased upon proving their own identity and relationship. Hotmail does not have an option to specify in advance that they do not want the contents of their email accessed by a next of kin.”

Gmail

Gmail will also allow the next of kin or executor of estate to apply for access to a deceased user’s email account. However, they need more identification than Hotmail. The person would have to prove their own identity and supply a death certificate as well as proof of an email conversation between them and the deceased.

If the deceased user was underage, the next of kin would also have to provide a copy of their birth certificate.

Gmail does not delete the deceased user’s account, but says the next of kin could choose to do so after gaining access to it.

Yahoo!

Yahoo! has the strictest policy when it comes to the data of deceased users. The company will let the user’s next of kin ask for the account to be closed, but will not give them access to it. It says users who want their emails to be inherited should make arrangements in their will.

A spokesperson said: “The commitment Yahoo! makes to every person who signs up for a Yahoo! Mail account is to treat their email as a private communication and to treat the content of their messages as confidential.

“Internet users who want to be sure their email and other online accounts are accessible to their legal heirs may want to work with their attorneys to plan an offline process for such access as part of their estate planning process.”

Facebook

Facebook has a policy called memorialisation that applies to the profiles of deceased users. Once the user’s death is confirmed, their profile can be turned into a sort of virtual shrine. When that happens, the profile is locked so no one can log into it and sensitive information (including status updates) is removed.

Family members can determine how the memorial looks and behaves ? for example if other people can continue to write on the user’s page ? but can’t log into the profile themselves.

From Facebook’s Help page: “Please note that in order to protect the privacy of the deceased user, we cannot provide login information for the account to anyone. We do honour requests from close family members to close the account completely.”

MySpace

MySpace has no set policy when it comes to the profiles of deceased users. A spokesperson said: “Given the sensitive nature of deceased member profiles, MySpace handles each incident on a case-by-case basis when notified and will work with families to respect their wishes.”

The site says it will not allow anyone to “assume control” of the user’s profile, however it won’t rule out giving families access to the user’s private data. MySpace does not delete profiles after periods of inactivity, but will remove a deceased user’s profile at the family’s request. A spokesperson said giving users a choice about who can access their data “sounds like a good idea”.

Source: News.com.au

Article By Andrew Ramadge, Technology Reporter

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