“Google – saves everything. Forever.” Forever ever?

Google – saves everything. Forever.

But does that really mean forever ever?

The Background

Nearly everyone uses the web, and a drastically increasing amount of the world’s population is using Social Media. To name just a few:

LinkedIn has about 100 million users, Facebook has more than 750 million active users of which more than 50% log on in any given day and more than 200 million people actively use twitter in their everyday life.

People post their everything about their daily life on the web, communicate with their friends and aquaintances and build up business profiles.

But what actually officially happens to our facebook profiles, e-mail or twitter accounts after our death?

The Current Conditions

In the past years various cases were talked about in the United States, in which the family members were rejected the access to the profile or the inbox of the deceased. Yahoo for example once only opened up the E-Mail account for a family of a deceased young man after a court order.

The Goal

The conflict shows how difficult the handling with internet data is in the event of death. Shall family members get the access to private E-Mails, although one can’t find out if this would be in the interest of the deceased? Is the protection of privacy, which was once assured to the user, valid also after his death? In general, E-mails, photos and virtual adressbooks belong to the inheritant. Nevertheless, inheritable and non inheritable right have to be distinguished from the right of privacy. But how can you do this if nobody knows what exactly the wish of the deceased would have been?

The Actual Policies – Hurdles for Family Members

According to Astrid Coralls article on NDR info,

  • Email providers like GMX.de or WEB.de provide access to the e-mail accounts for the inheritants after they have provided the certificate of inheritance.
  • Google apparantly has a more complicated procedure in which family members have to send a letter with filled in documents to the office in California. Google prooves the case and then decides if the family members can access the account or not.
  • Yahoo Germany handles the matter more cautiously. If the family members wish so, the account is closed after the providing of the certificate of death, but they don’t give access to it.
may memorialize the account of a deceased person. When we memorialize an account we keep the profile on Facebook, but only let friends and family look at pictures or write on the user’s Wall in remembrance. You can report a deceased person’s profile. We also may close an account if we receive a formal request from the person’s next of kin.
  • Business-Networks like XING tend to deactivate the profile first and finally only delete it after three months.
  • A post from heiseonline.de about digital inheritances, states that the German social media platforms like StudiVZ, SchülerVZ and MeinVZ arrange the case individually with the family members and decide in compliance with them wether the profile shall be closed or not.

The Invention

Jeremy Toemans grandmother was 94 years old when she died, the inheritance was all arranged. To contact several e-mail friends of the grandmother, the family wanted access to her account – no password, no access. After this experience, Jeremy Toeman founded his service Legacy Locker, which offers a

safe, secure repository for your digital property that lets you grant access to online assets for friends and loved ones in the event of loss, death, or disability.
The service bridges a gap in the market, because despite of the increasing networking, not many people think about what happens to their Online Assets after their death: Passwords for E-Mail-Accounts, Facebook profile, the myspace site or the access to the photos saved on Flickr. Legacy Locker basically only provides an extention of already existing password-saving-services, though reacts to the needs of the digitalised society.

To check it the owner of a virtual respository has really passed away, the service uses a multi-stage system: When someone reports the death of a user, the service first tries to get in contact with that person. If this does not work various times, particular family members have to confirm the death and provide a certified copy of the death certificate.

The Concept

The concept behind Legacy Locker and VitalLock may seem macabre but in the end is only the logical development of long-serving line of businesses. Funeral parlors, florists, newspapers which print death notices: they all live – more or less – of the business with the family members of the deceased. Now that a bigger part of life happens on the web, the digital inheritance is generally to be treated just as the traditional inheritance. It basically substitues traditional correspondance just as we used to have it. In the past the inheritants also inherited real letters, so why should they not inherit E-Mails?

What’s going to happen next?

Legacy Locker shall start in April, a similar offer, VitalLock, in July. While the quite expensive ($300) Legacy Locker is meant to be used for more professional inheritances, VitalLock offers the service for private persons. At first both services are only offered to US-Citizens but at least VitalLock plans to expand to other countries in the long-run. Will this work? Will other countries legal policies allow these new services? And will inheriting our digital assets become a normal aspect to consider?

My personal guess would be yes, and that there is no way around it in our already so digitalised world, but these questions can probably only be answered by the development of the world wide web in the next couple of years.

Leave a comment


  1. Excellent questions, limited only by the sources: how about researching the HUGE debates around, say, Gmail and privacy (are they doing more than data mining my emails for adsense?), Electronic Freedom Foundation debates over govt access to online accounts … maybe look for less anecdotal and more comprehensive professional debates?

  2. When I looked at your title I thought that you would write about the so called “data- mining”.
    I was really surprised by how different your post is to what I had expected. I had never thought about what would happen to my email and facebook account as soon as I am dead. The LegacyLocker is an extremely interesting program and caught my attention right away.
    Thanks for bringing up this topic. I feel like I have actually learned something and it reminded me of the importance of organizing your life, even after death.

  3. Hey Jessica
    as Martin already said-the way your post turned out to treat the topic was completely different from my previous expectations and I thank you for this aha-effect.
    Not having thought of this question in the way you treated it before, I am wondering whether the possibility to get access to the accounts of dead family members or friends does offer the possibility of misuse.
    Not always,people just want the best for their deceased and I am wondering whether by having access to their mail accounts and everything connected to this they are enabled to cheat departments and insurances or banks.
    As you see, your post completely provokes pensiveness and this can never be bad.
    Additionally, I must say that you gave a very nice application of the Toyota a3 model.
    I am looking forward to your next post:)

  4. Lucas

     /  January 29, 2012

    I agree with my predecessors. You used the Toyota scheme quite clever sothat the post was cozy to read even though it’s been quite long. I actually don’t know how you would integrate the HUGE discussion into the scheme.
    The debate is quite interesting though. It’s not possible to post one link at this stage since there’s no right one but a huge debating community but maybe you have observed it already in further detail.
    Thumbs up for the post.
    What is also interesting is, that historians are nowadays using social networks to find out about person’s lives, opinions etc. as Dan Cocos states.
    Sometimes these information are not only interesting to relatives but the the mankind (slightly exaggerated).

  5. Saskia R.

     /  February 11, 2012

    Dear Jessy,

    I can only agree with the others when reading your post. It turned out to be abput a completely different topic than I expected and you brought up a question that I never even thought about. Really quite an interesting topic.

    I am also wondering now what will happen to all my accounts after my death. If I wouldn’t keep a list of all my different accounts on different websites I would not even know to how many platforms I am connected.
    In my opinion it’s basically impossible to not have at least one or two accounts these days. I mean who doesn’t have an email account these days?

    Your question really let me think about what to do in case of a sudden or unexpected death. I think I actually have to talk with my family about that because you will never know what will happen and as we know for “normal” people like us it might seem quite impossible to get access to an account if we don’t know the password. Obviously not everyone has this IT knowledge and the skills.

    From my point of view it would be best if the different platforms delete the accounts of the deceased after it is proven that they have really passed away. I think no one should get access to the private information the deceased left. Maybe only in special cases. But of course, this again raises the question of who determines these “special cases” and who actually is responsible for these kind of issues. I can imagine that there is a lot of discussion going on about that topic. It is so controversial. I definitely couldn’t come up with the right solution but I think it is great that you provided us with some possibilities like legacy locker even though it might not be perfect as well.

    All in all a really intersting post, that had a nice flow to it and raised up a few questions everyone of us should really put some effort into thinking about it.

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