Wednesday, April 17, 2013

WotW: Taking Care of Your Digital Life After You're Dead

If you die, and no one is around to see it, who gets all your email?

Weird question, but it bears asking. If you die, what happens to all your online data? Is it really yours? Does it become the property of your nearest relative? Do online companies have an obligation to release that data to your family? And does it matter?

Ten years ago, nobody would have been asking these questions. Today, they are the stuff of lawsuits. So much of our lives are tied up in various online accounts. We journal online (blogs and social media), our pictures and videos are online, our reputations are online, our letters are online (email) and our contacts are online. In just one decade, we have really become quite the digital generation. But when you die, do these things work the same way as other inheritance items?

The answer? Well, it's not clear cut. So far, it seems like your data is yours and nobody else's. So, when you die, your data dies with you. That means all those messages, pictures, videos and contacts die too. Oh sure, they'll probably float online, but your relatives won't have access to and authority over them.

I don't know about you, but I want my family to have access to this data. It's valuable information. But, under the current laws, there's not much I can do about it. Or is there?

An easy answer to this situation is to leave behind the passwords to your digital accounts. Write them down on a physical piece of paper (storing them in the cloud is risky because of the potential for these accounts to be compromised), and add it to your will. Store it in a safe, remote location, like a safety deposit box.

But, even still, what if something happens to that paper? Thankfully, Google has come to the rescue, as they always do.

Last week, Google released an Inactive Account Manager feature that allows you to set your wishes for what happens to your online Google data after a certain period of inactivity.

You specify how long it takes before your account becomes inactive. Currently, you have options for 3 months, 6 months, 9 months or a year. For me, I felt one year would be a good time period, but you can decide. Truth be told, if I'm not on any Google product for more than a day, I am probably dead.
Then, you decide what you want to have happen to your data. You can have Google automatically notify trusted individuals when your timeout period has been reached, or you can have Google delete your account on your behalf. If you're paranoid about your data, deletion is a good option. If you're more open with your info, then adding a trusted individual is the way to go.

To begin this process, go to the Google Inactive Account Manager. You will have to be logged in to your Google account. Next, scroll down and click on the Learn more and go to setup link under the Account Management section.

Once here, you will be able to specify your timeout period, how Google should alert you when your account is approaching its inactivity deadline (just in case you were legitimately not on your account for that time, but still want it), and what happens to your data.

To alert trusted individuals about your account inactivity, you simply click on the add trusted account link and type in a contact's email address. Then, you can select if Google will just notify them that your account is inactive or you can have Google release some or all of your data to that person. In fact, you can do this with up to 10 people.

I chose my wife. I gave her access to all my data. Once I did this, I was prompted to write her a brief message about why she is getting this data.

Sure, this is only good for Google products, but so much of our lives are tied up in Google products. Want to know how much? Check out your Google dashboard. Hopefully other companies will follow their example and you can have more control.

Setting up your Inactive Account Management takes only a few minutes, but if can bring great peace of mind. So add it to your spring cleaning list.
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