Who owns a person’s digital and online data when they die?

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Apple recently made national news following their misunderstanding of an estate related query from one of their customers in the UK.

A son inherited his mother’s iPad device and he appealed to the manufacturer to help him unlock it.  The company asked for a series of legal steps to be undertaken and documents to be provided with the request as their concern was to protect the account information, data and content of the original owner.

When the company realised that the son only wanted to use the device and for it to be returned to its factory settings, that is to say, wiped clean of its previous owner’s accounts, data and history, it duly complied and fulfilled the request.

This news story highlighted that online data and accounts do not automatically have the same status as we associate with traditional or fixed assets that form part of an estate. In this case, while the iPad as a device was seen as transferable from person to person, the data and software contained within it was not and may not have been, even if wishes regarding it had been explicitly outlined in a will.

Who actually owns digital assets is a key yet unclear issue in today’s estate and legacy planning. There was a hoax story a while ago in which Bruce Willis was suing Apple because he wouldn’t be able to pass his extensive iTunes collection on to his children when he died. The story was bogus but as Paul Gordon, Associate for Finlaysons, a national law firm in Australia points out, the issue is real.

“Often when you ‘buy’ music online what you are actually acquiring is a licence to listen to it, rather than buying the song itself,” Gordon points out. “That licence may come with restrictions and may not be passed onto your next of kin when you die (i.e. a ‘personal’ contract). These issues aren’t going to go away and I’m sure will come before the courts in the coming years.”

In a previous post, I’ve mentioned how people who have lost relatives or friends often have a drive to find out more about them, including their digital lives. While this latest case with Apple made headlines, it’s not an uncommon event. Digital providers will not just hand over access to personal data or information of the deceased unless there’s a legal requirement to do so as their position is to defend the privacy of the account holder, in death as in life.

Damin Murdock, Principal Lawyer of the MurdockCheng Legal Practice based in Sydney suggests that when writing up a will, individuals remove any ambiguity about how they want their digital information dealt with upon their death.

“I always recommend my clients to have a list of all bank accounts, passwords, PIN numbers and so forth with respect to financial institutions,” Murdock says.

“The same should apply for digital accounts. Next time you see a lawyer to update your Will, you should ask that lawyer to help you include your digital accounts, usernames and passwords. They can also work with you to provide for all intellectual property rights contained in each asset to be transferred to the respective beneficiary. Lastly, you can waive your rights to privacy so your Executor can gain access to your accounts and deal with them in accordance with your wishes (if this is what you really want).”

Gordon concurs and doesn’t anticipate changes in legislation to digital and online asset ownership anytime soon.

“In the US, several states have passed laws which deal with access to social media accounts, allowing the executor to take control after death. This is slowly creeping across the States but is yet to appear in Australia.”

He agrees that it is important to consider what will happen after you die and make sure it is well documented, ideally in a will, but also known amongst family members.

“Like a lot of these things, people often put them off as it means facing up to their own mortality. But it is important to do to save your loved ones from having to go through difficult and complex legal processes to get access to your online assets.”

How to give someone access to your Google email and data; manage your digital afterlife

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Google Inactive Manager is a recent introduction by Google to allow account holders to share their email and data with a nominated next of kin or friends after they have died or have stopped using Google services. A previous post looks at the pros and cons of using Google Inactive Manager and why you might want to do so. Here’s a step by step guide to help you this up this function…

Setting up Google Inactive Manager

Go to your Google homepage, click on your profile or avatar picture at the top right hand side of the page and select ‘Account’ after your name. You’ll need to be logged in to set up this feature.

Once in your ‘Account’ page, select the ‘Data tools’ option at the top of the page and then click on ‘Set up Inactive Google Manager’.

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You’ll be presented with the Google Inactive Manager dashboard. Click on ‘Set up’ to get started.

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First you’ll need to provide a mobile phone number. Click on the ‘Add mobile phone number’. The system is intuitive so it doesn’t matter if you type in a zero after the country code or leave spaces between numbers.

Once done, hit the ‘Send verification code’ button – it should send a code to your phone via SMS which consists of a series of numbers or letters and numbers. Add to the ‘Verify number’ box which appears and click ‘Confirm’.

You can also add another email address to receive updates or alerts at this point.

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Once you’ve provided your contact details, select a timeout period on the Google Inactive Manager homepage. This means the length of time that you leave your Google account inactive, i.e. the period during which you do not log into Google for email, search, Google+, Drive or any of the Google tools. The minimum period is 3 months, the maximum period is 18 months. Think of the feature you most commonly use on Google and base a time period around that.

Remember though, Google only knows that you’ve used your account if you have logged into your account. If you use Google search everyday but are not signed in then you check your email every six months which you have to sign in for, Google will register the six month email activity on your account but not the search.

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Next, select ‘Add trusted contact’. You can nominate up to 10 contacts who will have three months to download your data once the account is inactive. Here’s where you can enter the email details of the person(s) you nominate to receive your data. Check the ‘Share my data with this contact option’ to ensure that they are able to receive the data later. If there is someone that you don’t want to have access to your email or other Google data but would like to send them a message, you can add a note for them at this point which the recipient will receive when the timeout period has finished.

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Select the Google data that you would like your nominated person(s) to download. As well as making sure your contact details are correct, you’ll need to verify the correct phone number for your nominated contact(s). You’ll also need to update your contact’s mobile phone if this changes over time so that they will be able to access your account once it has become inactive. You can pick and choose what your nominated contact(s) will be able to download and access.

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After hitting the ‘Next’ button, you’ll be taken to a page where you can leave a message for the person you’ve nominated to receive your Google data. While setting up Google Inactive Manager is practical, the message doesn’t have to be. It’s a good opportunity to leave a thoughtful message behind for someone who is grieving. What would they want to hear? Anything you want them to know? What you say could make a difference to them.

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Google Inactive Manager also allows you to set up an auto-response to incoming email once your Google account has become inactive.

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Lastly, you decide what happens to your Google account once your outlined actions have been completed. Would you like the account to be deleted? Google Inactive Manager includes this option which will also remove any public comments/data you have, for instance on YouTube or Google+.

opt_delete_google_account_digitalafterlife_deathOnce you’ve hit ‘Enable’, your Google settings are confirmed. Remember, you are able to update your settings at any point. Visit this earlier post on things to consider when setting up Google Inactive Manager.

What happens to Google email & online information when someone dies?

When people lose someone close to them, they frequently seek to find out more about what they were thinking or doing before they died. It’s as though they are trying to get a complete sense of the person and how they related to everyone else and the world around them.

Accessing secure information such as email is one way that mourners have sought to do this. However until recently, Google has restricted the ability of family members to see account information of the relatives who have died. It has required a legal process. The company has stated that their focus is to consider the privacy of users who sign up to their services – whether living or dead.

This changed in April 2013 when Google announced that their users are now able to nominate a next of kin or someone close to them which allows them access their account data if the account has been inactive for a period of three or more months. It’s called Google Inactive Manager. This will potentially be an enormous comfort for families trying to delve into their loved ones’ histories, sparking memories as well as a greater understanding of who they were. But what are the consequences? Could it in fact open Pandora’s box?

Why family members may want access to your emails and information

Earlier this year, my folks and I visited an army barracks in Catterick, UK to see some soldiers that my brother, DBS, helped to recruit to his Battalion. It was a good day, meeting some of the officers that he served with and finding out more about the customs, traditions and the way of life that he became part of.

Chatting with one of the officers over lunch, he told me that one of the most common questions that families ask when dealing with the news that they have lost someone while on active duty is “did he or she receive my parcel?” They want to know if their son, daughter, spouse or sibling knew that they were in their thoughts and were loved. Even if the recipient hadn’t had a chance to consume or open the package, their families are relieved and grateful if they know it was received. The gift symbolises their act of thinking about and loving them.

I was immediately struck by this conversation and could relate to what the offer had said. When I was informed of my brother’s death, my first response was “did he know that I loved him?” not long followed by “but I haven’t sent him his parcel,” a box of goodies that I’d bought a few days prior but hadn’t yet mailed.  It is a deeply held regret.

By contrast, I knew that my brother had thought of me. Two days later a postcard arrived from him that had taken some time to arrive from overseas, telling me not to worry and that he and his boys were well trained and prepared. He would see me soon. I could hear his voice as I read it and I felt a combination of being elated because I had received his thoughtful message and devastated because its timing was like a punch in the stomach.

I had sent DBS several emails in the month prior to his death to his Google gmail account. However, because of the nature of his work, I wasn’t sure that he had received them. He hadn’t replied. Army representatives at his repatriation and funeral, tried to assure me that he may have read them. “Camps often have internet”, they said. “Perhaps he was able to check into his account between duties”.

It wasn’t something that I was able to find out definitively from Google though. Initial enquiries by the MOD (Military of Defence) and ourselves to access his account were rebutted.

DBS was old fashioned in his approach to communicating with friends. He wrote pen on paper letters and mailed them to friends and family. By contrast, I preferred online forms of communication such as email and social and now believe as a result, that a significant period of my personal history has been lost.

By committing his words down on a card, I had a record of his thoughts for me. They were there in black and white. In my initial stages of grief, not knowing whether or not he had received my correspondence meant I had no guarantee — for a while — that he knew mine for him.

Respecting someone’s privacy while managing a digital estate

In military life, it’s a common ritual to send parcels and mail to men and women in the field. Increasingly though in our digital age, emails and notes through social networking platforms have primarily become our means of communicating, symbols if you like, that convey we’re thinking of others. Given this trend, it’s no wonder that we want to see these sent and received messages from behind a username and password.

In an earlier post, I mentioned how our family wanted to respect DBS’s privacy when handling data stored on his laptop with our desire to find out more about him. We did this by asking a third party to look through its contents, separating the information he would have wanted us to see from the notes and conversations that he would likely preferred we didn’t.

We would have applied the same practice to his email handling if we had been allowed to. This is certainly something I would recommend to families going through this experience of looking through email data of someone who has died, whether they access this information via the Google Inactive Manager or have obtained the right to read it through as the result of a legal process.

Being able to access a deceased person’s Google account data will likely be beneficial when managing their estate if gmail is their principal personal email account. For instance, resetting unknown passwords to 3rd party services such as iTunes, online banking, other social networking accounts is largely done via email.

There are also potential downsides to reading through someone’s private history and relationships. By looking through these archives, you are likely to become privy to a world inhabited by all kinds of private conversations. People often have secret lives, or have done things or have feelings that the people closest them may not know about. Even if this is not the case, online conversations can easily be misinterpreted.

Google Inactive Manager – features & things to consider when setting this service up

Things to consider when setting up Google Inactive Manager

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Google Inactive Manager is a recent introduction by Google to allow account holders to share their email and data with a nominated next of kin or friends after they have died or have stopped using Google services. A previous post looks at the pros and cons of using Google Inactive Manager and why you might want to do so. Here are some additional things to think about when setting this up this function…

Google’s decision to make a user’s private data available to people they have nominated is a positive one, especially if users are considerate in how they manage their settings, balancing their privacy v. providing information that would be practical or of comfort in some way, to their friends and relatives.

Having trialled this feature recently, here are some considerations if you decide to take advantage of this function.

Google Inactive Manager allows you to decide what Google features and data your next of kin/family members/friends can download in the event of your death.

Think about what you want to share. You may want to reveal data from your blog or Google+ circles to those you’ve nominated but not your email. When signing up, there’s a full checkbox list of Google features. Just check the information areas that you would like to disclose.

With this kind of digital estate planning, tell your closest kin what you are planning to do and what information you’ve nominated. This way you can discuss what your decision means and there are no surprises later in the event that something happens to you. On a purely practical note, your Google account needs to be inactive for at least three months before your nominated party can download your data. Discussing the steps that you have taken with them means that they may avoid running around in administrative or legal circles trying to obtain this account information in the meantime.

Google Inactive Manager only applies to gmail accounts – i.e. your nameorxxxx@ gmail.com

Email accounts hosted by Google but which are instead Gmail accounts with Google Apps (for instance, a business email address), are not supported by this service. For a Google Apps account, you’ll need to consider an alternative means of sharing data, for instance by setting up someone you trust as an admin on your account. If you have set up multiple personal Gmail accounts (i.e. name@gmail.com) you can set up Google Inactive Manager for each of these.

Google Inactive Manager will set into action if you stop using Google and don’t make the service inactive again.

It’s important to check in and update this service regularly to ensure that it is reflective of your digital afterlife wishes.  Your next of kin or the friends you want to nominate may change over time as may the level and type of information you want to share.

You can choose more than one person with whom you share your data. It’s not immediately obvious but if you wish to change the Google information that your previously nominated friends/family can download, click on the edit symbol (the pencil) next to their name. There’s also the option of deleting their access status if you change your mind later.

Online service providers change and go out of business as I’ve written about before. Google’s Gmail is showing no signs of abating, however, if you do decide to use another email service and discontinue using Gmail, make sure you deactivate Google Inactive Manager otherwise you’ll be sharing information before it’s time. A false alarm would be awkward, upsetting… and have privacy as well as security implications.

Google Inactive Manager offers the option for you to provide a posthumous message to your closest friends and family

There are lots of services that will charge a fee for you to send a personalised message to loved ones after your death.

When you set up Google Inactive Manager and nominate the family and friends you would like to share your email or other Google data with, you are able to include a personalised message for each nominee which they will receive once the service is activated. It’s free and part of the opt-in process.

While Google Inactive Manager serves a practical purpose, use this message to say something thoughtful. It really will make a difference.

How to manage someone’s Facebook community after they have died

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Recently I wrote about some of the issues that memorialising a Facebook profile raises for relatives or next of kin managing the Facebook community for someone who has died. (What is Facebook memorialisation?) The user’s account is made inactive by Facebook meaning that no one person is responsible for moderating or content on that account any longer. This can present issues if any friends of the deceased post inappropriate comments or remarks that the former account holder may have removed while they were alive. Settings are also locked into the status that they were when the request for memorialiation was made – so if privacy was set to “Public” or the account is given permission to link to search engines, there’s potentially a larger community to manage.

Facebook may or may not be evolving its memorialisation options in the future. News of someone dying will evoke a tremendous wave of activity on social networks as friends come to terms with the loss of someone they knew or were close to. In the event that you are managing a Facebook profile that belongs to someone who has passed away, or wondering how to deal with particular online grieving messages on an account wall that has already been memorialised, here are some suggestions based on our family’s recent experience losing someone.

Tips for community management & social etiquette

Ask people to think about what your deceased friend or family member would have posted his/herself and how they positioned themselves on their social networks. What would the profile owner have tagged or un-tagged? Sweaty, crazy pictures at a nightclub posted by a friend might indicate they had a good night out with the person who has died. If the latter was proud of their appearance though, pictures where they are looking worse for wear, might not be something that they would have tagged and kept on their wall when alive.  We found that people generally talked about Facebook at my brother’s funeral as well as other commemorative or memorial events. Friends often checked in with family members about what would be appropriate and still do. Use these occasions to ask people to consider updates from the perspective of the deceased.

Set the example in posting the types of photos/updates to set the tone and enlist the support of friends to do so. My immediate family were all in a state of shock for days after we heard the news. Fortunately, some very close friends of my brother’s took on the task of posting updates to his communities.

Message people directly when you’re trying to manage messages from within the community. If you’re concerned about posted photos or messages that do not conform to the image the person would have wanted to convey or is likely to offend others in their network, don’t hesitate to drop them a private message asking them to remove the content. People tend to respect these wishes if offered with an explanation.

Take a social media sabbatical. If you find yourself or others getting wound up by comments or photos posted, take a break and encourage others to do the same. When emotions are running high, comments or photos may be misinterpreted and you may find yourself stressing about what others might do. The best advice I can offer is to move away from the screen if you’re feeling affected. And you can enlist the help of trusted friends to monitor it or communicate with network members while you take time out.

If you want to build an ongoing community on a memorialised profile, set this expectation as well as the tone. Use the account to commemorate major ongoing milestones – birthdays, anniversaries, significant dates. News amongst friends in the deceased’s network could also be shared. New friendships may be forged and old ones reignited or strengthened when a mutual friend dies.

Any other recommendations? I’d love to hear them. Post your thoughts and questions below.

The pen v. the keyboard and privacy in death

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A few weeks after my brother’s death, Mum and Dad received eight large cardboard boxes of his personal effects from where he was stationed in Afghanistan as well as from his UK base living quarters. His laptop was included amongst these.

We had and still have an insatiable desire to find out more about him, piecing together strands of his life story like a jigsaw puzzle as we look through old photos and have conversations with his friends.

Our curiosity extended to his laptop but at the same time, we felt uncertain about whether we should look into its contents. The existence of a username and password on a laptop changes the way that you feel about accessing someone’s information contained within, whether they are alive or not. It’s generally considered taboo.

We wouldn’t have thought less of him, regardless of (almost) anything we discovered.  Our concern was though, would he have wanted his family or friends to know what was beyond his screensaver? He was rigorous about changing passwords frequently.

Despite our initial reticence, our solution was to ask an acquaintance who didn’t know him to crack into and look through the laptop’s content, deciphering what he might have wanted to share with family or friends and what he was more likely to want to remain private. That way, conversations, photos, old internet searches, notes and chat via apps such as WhatApp that he may have wanted to stay confidential, remained confidential.

It seemed to be a good compromise.  We could continue to find out more about my brother’s adventures through previewed items such as photos or snapshots of his most recent selections in music and movies via download histories or databases. Meanwhile, we felt he kept his dignity.

I considered it a straightforward process and thought that would be the end of the matter.  That is until over time, more and more belongings were unpacked and we discovered his diaries.

My brother was a meticulous note taker and asides from the occasional lapse, a writer of regular diary entries.  He had notebooks that came back from Afghanistan, his various postings as well as journals from his London work life and school days. As soon as we discovered these, I realised we had assessed his digital memoires very differently from the ones he jotted down on paper.

He wrote several online notes and entries on his laptop, usually in note taking programs or in word documents. Initially I felt that we should avoid or wipe these, perhaps because in my mind they seemed off limits and were less structured. By comparison, it hadn’t occurred to me that we should destroy his penmanship.

The online entries fortunately survived and both laptop and handwritten entries remain mostly unread.  But a conundrum remains.

Currently I’m contemplating whether or not it’s okay to read a person’s private thoughts when they are gone regardless of where they are written.

Diaries are often read and published post-mortem. In an informal poll with friends and family, their response tends to be that it is a question of personal choice whether or not you read the inner thoughts of someone close when they’ve gone.

Not having spoken with him about his views on the matter and in the absence of any last wish guidance, my opinion wavers regularly. However, whatever the outcome, his thoughts from the laptop will have equal weight.

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