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

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?


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.



Meet the New Bosses

How the Republicans would run the Senate.

The Government Is Giving Millions of Dollars in Electric-Car Subsidies to the Wrong Drivers

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Cheez-Its. Ritz. Triscuits.

Why all cracker names sound alike.

Friends Was the Last Purely Pleasurable Sitcom

The Eye

This Whimsical Driverless Car Imagines Transportation in 2059

Medical Examiner

Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?  

A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.

The Afghan Town With a Legitimately Good Tourism Pitch

A Futurama Writer on How the Vietnam War Shaped the Series

  News & Politics
Sept. 21 2014 11:34 PM People’s Climate March in Photos Hundreds of thousands of marchers took to the streets of NYC in the largest climate rally in history.
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
Brow Beat
Sept. 21 2014 2:00 PM Colin Farrell Will Star in True Detective’s Second Season
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 22 2014 5:30 AM MAVEN Arrives at Mars
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.