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When You Pass Away, What Happens to All Your Emails and Facebook Account?

February 24, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama

Good question.

We live in a strange new world, where we “post” our family and personal photos on an electronic “site” somewhere in the Internet and the actual “digital pixels” of the English alphabet letters in Emails and color photos of long-ago football games and honeymoon dinners themselves are in banks of memory boards housed in a carefully air-conditioned warehouse-like server “farm” perhaps in the Bay Area, who knows.

We share details of our lives with relatives or friends a thousand miles away (and sometimes never have met once), and we do not know the name of our neighbor in Kahului or Lahaina or Wailea.

We also exchange Emails* with our “contacts” list, as well as sending and receiving hundreds, sometimes thousands of digital photos. We share intimate insights or financial secrets and everything else.

Some of us (older) may have AOL or Yahoo! accounts dating back from the 1990s, so 15-plus years equals a lot of Emails, a lot of time spent hunched over a keyboard, maybe three or four PCs or laptops bought and discarded along those long years, plus a marriage or divorce or two, children, even grandchildren, and maybe two, three, four jobs and several different houses or apartments in the same area, or in separate cities.

In other words, one’s life is somewhere out there, all neatly cataloged in Emails chronologically.

And when one passes?

Imagine yourself as the child of a deceased person, whose Email account holds a lot of stuff. You Email Google and asked for the password to access Dear Dad’s Gmail account. Right. As if Google will respond, Number 1. And Number 2, they will promptly Email the password of somebody’s account.

How do you “prove” over the Internet that you are indeed the son or daughter? Based on protecting user account privacy (everybody uses Email in full trust of the Email provider keeping everything confidential -- if not, would you use Email?) Internet Email providers are very reluctant to send the password to anybody who asks, even if they scream in Emails that they are indeed Dear Dad’s first-born son and need to check on all the 8,000 Emails in the next week.

While living, one could write in a Will that upon death, the Will’s executor would have the power to ask for the password(s) of all Email(s) accounts (like the normal, everyday one, and any other “secret” accounts). But what value would that have? Normally, the Will’s executor is a busy lawyer with more important clients, and would there be any significant Emails – in 8,000 – for anybody living? Yet the Will could serve another purpose: in the Will, do list the Email and Facebook passwords, BUT designate the names of people who will NEVER get access to your Email account – and all secrets follow one into the grave.

Will any relative or offspring sue for a password? Will there be a key bank number in an Email? Who knows.

Facebook may allow a Page to remain “active” (a memorial, in a sense) even if the person dies – but again, somebody living has to Email Facebook and inform them that the Facebook account holder is indeed dead. A “memorial” page gathers coments and photos from other Facebook users (recently, I received an update to “write” my farewells at a digital “signing” page of a college mentor who had passed on), and the memory of the Facebook user (now over 1 billion) lives on as a legacy.

Legislation in many States is now pending over Email and Social Media (Facebook, Twitter) account access for surviving family members, and like I said, we are entering a strange new world.**

*When I entered Digital Equipment Corporation in eastern Massachusetts circa 1980 we used a primitive in-house “Email” network, communicating with other people on the same floor who all accessed the same VAX-11/70 32-bit super mini-computer. Around the same time an engineer at BBN (Bolt Beranak & Newman), a Boston consulting firm, developed the “@” mark to designate an Email “address”, and that was the early beginning of “Email” – and soon would come a private firm named “Compuserve”, then AOL, Yahoo!, Hotmail, Outlook, and the current Gmail. (I also worked for AOL and Google, which is another story.)

**”Digital assets” can include virtual game (e.g. Farmville) acquired lands or swords or entire towns. Some electronic items may go for thousands of dollars. Who owns them?


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