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Act Now Or, When You Die, Your Secret Love Letters Will Belong To Google

Gmail’s recent policy changes that let you designate someone to control your account after you’re gone is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the confusing issues around who can access your online life once you pass away.

After you die, the letters you keep in a box in the closet will no longer be private. But the letters in your email account are a different story. They might remain private, or they might remain forever inaccessible—it all depends on the whims of the email provider in question. Unless, that is, the email provider is Gmail, and you sign up for a new service they quietly rolled out last month.

There is a key difference between real-world property and digital: the data you store with Google or Yahoo or Facebook is no longer a straightforward possession, because it is no longer in your possession. It’s on a corporate server, subject to their Terms of Service, and also subject to archaic computer crime and privacy laws written in the 1980s. Facebook, for one, used these very laws to successfully refuse to turn over the account of Sahar Daftary to her estate after she tragically fell to her death.

This is why Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, suggests that if you want your online documents, emails, and other data to be passed on to your heirs, you should download them regularly to a hard drive that next of kin can access. "I think that may be the most practical solution," Donath said. This approach has its weaknesses, though; it requires you back up data frequently and some services (Facebook, for example) don’t allow it.

On the other hand, you may not want your emails to be downloaded. "My mother told me that when she went to the hospital to give birth to me she burned all her letters," Donath told me. "She thought, ‘If I die in childbirth, I don’t want anyone to read them.’" The letter burners among us might be disappointed by the fact that Google, for one, says they "may" turn over your emails, though only to an "authorized representative."

Google has now put another option on the table, however, that should please letter-savers and letter-burners alike. It’s called the "Inactive Account Manager."

What should happen to your photos, emails and documents when you stop using your account? Google puts you in control.

You might want your data to be shared with a trusted friend or family member, or, you might want your account to be deleted entirely. There are many situations that might prevent you from accessing or using your Google account. Whatever the reason, we give you the option of deciding what happens to your data.

Using Inactive Account Manager, you can decide if and when your account is treated as inactive, what happens with your data and who is notified.

So far, Google is the only of the major email providers to offer such a clear solution. Still, it isn’t perfect. As estate planner and digital property expert Jim Lamm pointed out over email, "What happens if you designate your spouse to receive your data, but you subsequently divorce?"