Will You Use Google’s Death Manager To Let Loved Ones Read Your Email When You Die?



Google announced a new feature today: the innocuously named “Inactive Account Manager.” “Not a great name, we know,” writes product manager Andreas Tuerk in a public policy blog post that explains that the feature is a way for Google users to tell Google what to do with their digital assets when they kick the bucket.

Will You Use Google's Death Manager To Let Loved Ones Read Your Email When You Die

“Not many of us like thinking about death — especially our own,” writes Tuerck. “But making plans for what happens after you’re gone is really important for the people you leave behind.”

It’s probably more appropriate to call it, as techie Ryan Singel quickly did, the Google Death Manager. The Death Manager lets you tell Google what to do with the data from all of your Google accounts, including most intimately, your Gmail messages, if your account goes inactive, presumably because you have gone to the great server farm in the sky. You can have the data simply deleted after a set period of inactivity or you can, will-style, hand it over to trusted contacts.

Google has built some safeguards into the system to try to prevent it from misfiring. You choose the time setting — three months, six months, twelve months, basically however long you think you would stay in a coma before recovering — of inactivity that signals “death.” And Google will give you a one-month warning before pronouncing you departed and setting the system into action. So, if you should decide to unplug and travel the world for six months, make sure Google has a way to contact you.

This is actually a really great feature for the information giant to add. Google knows so much about us; it has an amazing archive of our personal history. Depending on how many Google products you use, it may have an archive of your searches, your emails, your chats, your phone calls, your documents, your private photos, and your private videos. Those archives are a vibrant blend of the mundane, the hidden, the intimate, and the secret for each of us. The Death Manager includes public and private data from Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube.

Historians will certainly be dying for access to information like this for people they want to profile, especially in these digital times when written letters are scarce. And family members are often desperate for a peek into the digital lives of their loved ones after death. Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin waged a very public fight against Google for not granting her family access to the account of a cousin who went missing in 2011. The family was sure that the young woman’s accounts might hold a clue to her disappearance (and presumed death) but Google refused to hand the information over because it’s forbidden to do so by electronic privacy laws.

Virginia has gone so far as to pass a law granting parents access to their children’s social media accounts after their deaths. It was inspired by a set of parents who wanted access to their 15-year-old’s Facebook account after he committed suicide to try to figure out why he took his own life. A sponsor of the bill said, when it was passed in February of this year, “This is the 2013 equivalent of what you would store under your bed. Today, we store it on a server.”

The dead may not be aware of the intrusion on their privacy, but it’s certainly a disturbing thought that someone might go through your intimate communications against your will. Google’s solution is far more elegant, allowing the dead to choose their own privacy settings for the afterlife.

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