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

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