The Best Solution to the Problem of Dead People's Digital Accounts

Future Tense
The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 25 2014 10:02 AM

Can My Kids Read My Emails? Over My Dead Body.

My mother keeps a painted green box in her closet with girlhood drawings, adolescent diaries, and college letters from my father. She certainly isn’t the sentimental type—it’s just that there are pieces of our lives that we are wont to preserve.

In the digital age, however, fewer and fewer of our intimate records go easily into a box in a closet. Over the course of our lives we will produce a massive amount of online content, capable of outliving us many times over. Much of this content—in email, on Facebook—is password protected, accessible (we hope!) only to us. But what about the pieces we want to share once we’re gone? How should we manage our digital accounts after death?

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The Hill reports that Congress is currently being lobbied by a group of estate attorneys to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act to allow for additional considerations after the death or incapacitation of a digital accountholder. The ECPA currently prohibits tech companies from releasing private communications without the user’s lawful consent. However, the attorneys in question hope that this right of consent would be passed to the person carrying out the user’s will. A model state bill, currently being considered in Delaware, also aims to grant the persons responsible for a deceased’s estate access to their online lives. It’s not just sentimentality at stake here. Many “digital assets”—a famous writer’s first draft of a novel, for example—come with big dollar signs attached.

Tech providers, wary of the ECPA and of passing along information they shouldn’t, already have in-house approaches to saving or sharing private data posthumously. Facebook can either delete or “memorialize” a user’s account upon request from their estate holders. (The latter permits friends to view old photos and posts.) On rare occasions, Facebook has permitted families full access. Google’s “inactive account manager” allows users to pass on selected data to trusted contacts. While account access is off the table, Twitter will deactivate an account upon request by an authorized party, as will Yahoo. If you want your next of kin to be able to access your accounts, your best bet is with a provider like PasswordBox or SecureSafe, which delivers important documents and passwords to your designees after your death.

However, what if we don’t want to pass along access to every message we have ever sent? Every photo we have ever taken? Granting full access after death, privacy considerations aside, seems like overkill. I have no interest in leaving my children Amazon receipts, and even less so a record of my frankly concerning number of online Chipotle orders. I want to leave them a capsule of the things that mattered.

In my mind, the perfect post-death digital asset storage system is smaller than password inheritance, but larger than file upload. I imagine something integrated across all platforms that can serve as a space to store snapshots from across an entire digital life. What I want is an all-purpose archiving button that would quickly file away the few emails, blog posts, Facebook exchanges, and what-have-yous deemed worthy of saving.

After all, my daughter may one day want to see the Tinder exchange that sparked her parents’ romance. (It happens.)

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Hana Glasser is a Slate intern.

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