What happens to your data when you die?

Your email, digital photos and money in online accounts could all die with you, discovers Barry Collins.

Barry Collins
31 May 2007

At the risk of darkening your mood, imagine that on your way to work tomorrow morning you befall that most clichéd of endings: you're hit by a bus. The day after the policeman breaks the news to your wife, she sets about the unenviable task of informing your friends and family, and giving them details of the funeral.

You last kept a paper address book in the mid-1990s; you stored all your contacts in a BlackBerry Pearl. Sadly, that met with the same fate as you under the wheels of the number 73. Gone with it are the phone numbers of former work colleagues, your old university chums and the couple you met on holiday in Turkey last summer.

Never mind, because your wife recalls how you religiously backed up your contacts on your computer. She fires up the PC and, seconds later, claws at the screen in despair: two days earlier, you'd changed the password on the Windows XP Professional system because it had expired. Unfortunately, so have you, and this time your wife can't call you at work to find out what the magic word is.

Also locked on the machine that's stolidly protected by the password you took to your grave are five years worth of the family's digital photographs, copies of "paper-free" bank statements, and the correspondence with the solicitors concerning the Turkish villa you were midway through buying.

Then your wife remembers you had a Gmail account - perhaps you copied your contacts to that or, at the very least, had emails in your inbox from those friends she now desperately needs to get in touch with? Just one problem - she hasn't got the password for that either. Nor the PayPal account that's stuffed with £350 from the old PC you sold on Ebay, the 888.com poker account that's £150 up after last month's tournament win, or the light aircraft blog you created that's generating a slender ad revenue each month. Your digital assets have effectively died with you.

Such is the fragility of the online world we live in. With more and more of our personal data and wealth being stored on computers - be it your own PC or a server farm in California - this information becomes decidedly vulnerable, if not unrecoverable, when the weakest link in the chain (which, of course, is you) breaks.

While most people will create a will to determine what happens to their physical assets when they're gone, very few will have bothered to cater for the assets they hold online. A leading probate lawyer said he'd never heard of anyone listing digital assets in a will. Yet with inboxes stuffed full of personal correspondence, hard disks and online albums chocked with irreplaceable family photos, and significant sums of money held in internet accounts, it's something you can't afford to ignore.

Accessing email

You might assume that gaining access to something as simple as your partner's webmail account would be relatively easy. You'd be horribly, horribly wrong. Whether you get access at all depends on the policy of the provider. Some refuse outright, and even those that are willing to co-operate with mourning relatives have a stringent set of conditions that have to be met before they'll part with messages.

Take Google's Gmail, for example. The company demands the following from the deceased's family:

1 The full name and contact information of the requester, including a verifiable email address.

2 The Gmail address of the individual who passed away.

3a The full header from an email message that you've received at your verifiable email address, from the Gmail account in question.

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