What happens to your emails when you die?
If you’re not a) older than 50 and b) don’t have a terminal illness, it’s probably not something you’ve given much thought to. And yet, our emails frequently contain very private thoughts and discussions that we very much would not want to be out in the open - and the thought of them being on public display when we eventually pop our clogs would be horrifying.
However, a recent court ruling has suggested that just such an eventuality could come to pass.
On Monday (16 October) a Massachusetts appeals court ruled in a case that, even if permission wasn’t expressly granted, the legal representatives of a deceased email account holder can lawfully access messages in order to try and discover what that person wanted to happen to their estate.
The case dates back to 2009, when 43-year-old Robert Ajemian died in a bicycle accident leaving no will. His siblings, who were the representatives of his estate, then sought to access his Yahoo emails to try and find out what their brother intended for his possessions. Yahoo refused permission, citing a violation of privacy protections in a 1986 US Act, while also pointing to their own terms of service, but a panel this week decided that Yahoo should release the information.
The legal specifics can be read in more detail here but, certainly, your gut instinct is that this is wrong; indeed, Albert Gidari, director of privacy for Stanford University Law School’s Center for Internet and Society in California puts it succinctly, telling Quartz: “He chose in life not to share that information, and didn’t take advantage of the tools Yahoo provides to allow users to export their data and store it offline. Access to content is just gratuitous and unnecessary to fulfill the estate.”
Nonetheless, the family argued that administrators should gain access to the account because they needed it and were the legal representatives of the deceased - so consent was implied - and the appeals court agreed with them.
However, the case does raise the issue of what, exactly, should happen to these things upon someone’s death.
The interesting thing is that, in the UK, in general, all the big tech players share one thing in common: they retain all information and content that you give them. So whatever happens, they will still have all the stuff you’ve uploaded, even if absolutely no one else - spouses, siblings, other relatives - does. Which feels… a bit strange.
On Facebook, there are two options: the deletion of the account (but they still retain the info) or the ‘memorialisation’ of the page - which you may have already seen happen. A pre-death-specified ‘legacy contact’ can then administer it - but they still won’t be able to see any private messages that you sent. However, according to their help centre: “In rare cases, we consider requests for additional account information or content.”
For Twitter, their terms state: “In the event of the death of a Twitter user, we can work with a person authorised to act on behalf of the estate, or with a verified immediate family member of the deceased to have an account deactivated.” From this, again, it doesn’t sound like a third party would be able to access previously sent DMs.
For Google, they state, as a guiding principle, that “people expect Google to keep their information safe, even in the event of their death.”
Before you die, you can set up an ‘inactive account manager’, which lets you say who should have access to your info, and whether you want your account deleted. However, for those who don’t do this, they say: “We recognize that many people pass away without leaving clear instructions about how to manage their online accounts. We can work with immediate family members and representatives to close the account of a deceased person where appropriate. In certain circumstances we may provide content from a deceased user’s account. In all of these cases, our primary responsibility is to keep people’s information secure, safe, and private. We cannot provide passwords or other login details. Any decision to satisfy a request about a deceased user will be made only after a careful review.”
In short, none of this is simple, and it’s complicated by the fact that users’ data may be stored in different countries.
So, while this new ruling may have occurred in the US, it could still affect us over here in the UK. So it might be worth getting your digital houses in order before you head off to join the choir invisible.