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Here’s What Happens to Your Data After You Die

Pallbearers carrying a coffin
Pallbearers carrying a coffin


A couple of years ago. I logged on to one of my many social network accounts and encountered a familiar face under the People You May Know section: Emru Townsend.

Emru was indeed someone I knew. A talented writer, a good friend, and a true mensch, beloved by many. He was also dead. He had succumbed to leukemia a few years earlier at the age of 39.

Yet there he was, smiling at me just like he did in life. But it wasn’t just a social media account that survived Emru. There’s his personal blog, where he recounted in sometimes-painful detail his battle against cancer, and his professional one, featuring some of the hundreds of articles he wrote on technology and animation. There’s his Flickr account, featuring photos of him in the hospital. There’s the site his family set up in an effort to find a stem cell donor, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. Today, nearly seven six years to the day of Emru’s passing, he still receives email at his account, maintained by his widow, Vicky.

Emru Townsend
Emru Townsend

(Emru Townsend/Flickr)

In addition to leaving a mark on everyone he met, Emru also left a footprint on the Internet, which his family struggled to deal with because they did not have access to all of his accounts.

This is a problem all of us on the Internet will encounter eventually, whether we want to think about it or not.

What can go wrong? Lots. Your loved one may have died leaving photos and videos behind that you can’t get to. He may have locked essential financial or other information away with passwords and not left those with you. She may have online financial accounts with money or credits leftover, or social media accounts that continue to generate painful reminders of her absence.

And, each year, the personal information of more than 2.5 million dead people is abused by identity thieves, according to ID Analytics.

Data of the dead
So you want to deal with this now, before you die and leave your family a mess of locked-down digital assets. There are three key things you need to do, says Evan Carroll, co-author of Your Digital Afterlife.

  1. Make an inventory of all your digital assets. That includes the documents on your computer, the photos on your phone, any data stored on thumb drives or backup disks, and every online account, including the ones you no longer use. It’s a big job, but you don’t have to do it all at once, Carroll says. Start with the most important things and work your way down the list. Odds are your primary email account will be number one, since that’s typically where online accounts send password resets. Keep reading for advice on where to store this data.

  2. Figure out what you want to happen to all of this stuff after you’re gone. Do you want your family to have access to all your emails? How about photos? Videos and other material you’ve downloaded? There may be some things you don’t want your loved ones to see. Decide now, and make your wishes known to those you care about.

  3. Assign someone to be your digital executor. Be explicit in your will about what you want to happen to your assets. Don’t assume your survivors automatically have a right to it all, because the law varies greatly from state to state, Carroll says. On his blog, The Digital Beyond, he offers some sample power-of-attorney language to include in your will.

And if like more than half of all Americans you don’t have a will, it’s time to whip one up. Will-making software starts around $30, and some extremely simple last-will-and-testament templates are available online for free.

Things to do on Google when you’re dead
You also want to take a look at your online accounts. Of all the major online service providers, only Google lets you plan for the inevitable ahead of time. Using the innocuously named “Inactive Account Manager,” you can designate a beneficiary who will inherit access to any or all of your Google accounts after a specified period of inactivity (the default is three months).

Google account screenshot
Google account screenshot

The beneficiary will then have an additional three months to download your data before it gets pulled offline for good. You can even set up an auto-responder from the grave, so to speak, to alert emailers of your passing.

Facebook is probably the next best at this, though your options are more limited. Once a family member has passed, you can ask the network to either delete the account or “memorialize” it, essentially freezing it in time but removing it from features like birthday reminders or People You May Know. You’ll have to provide proof of death via certificate or a published obituary, however. And if you want to download content from the account, you’ll need to obtain a court order.

As for the other main social accounts, some allow you to request that a deceased person’s account be closed, once you provide proof of their demise. Others are totally silent on the matter. LinkedIn makes it pretty easy to delete a dead member’s profile; you can fill out a DocuSign form, digitally sign it, and email it in. There’s no way to preserve any blog posts or other material your loved one has shared, however.

You can ask Twitter to close the account of a deceased family member, but you’ll have to mail it paper copies of your ID, the death certificate, a copy of the obituary (if you have one), and proof that the account actually belongs to the decedent if his Twitter handle doesn’t match his legal name. If you want to remove images of your loved one posted by others, you can request that by emailing (but Twitter makes no guarantees it will honor every request).

Sadly, Yahoo’s death policy is rather stark. It will delete the account upon request and presentation of the death certificate. There are no options to download your loved one’s email, blog posts, or photos, nor can you create a memorial. According to Yahoo’s official policy statement, this is an effort to honor the original privacy choices of the deceased.

Still, that’s better than Amazon or Apple, which offer no way to officially close an account post mortem. (An Amazon spokesperson says you can close the account of a deceased family member by contacting Amazon customer support.) Worse, you can’t bequeath any of the music, videos, ebooks, and other digital materials a deceased customer paid for. That’s because you don’t actually buy these things, you license them; your right to them expires when you do.

Grave matters
As a practical matter, the best way to ensure that your digital assets pass into the right hands is to share them and your login data before you shuffle off this mortal coil.

(This may violate some terms of service agreements, but why should you care? You’ll be dead.)

Don’t insert login information into your will, advises Carroll; those documents usually become part of the public record, allowing any stranger to gain access to your accounts. Instead, indicate a secure place where your digital executor can find them, like a safe deposit box or an encrypted file in a service like SecureSafe.

PasswordBox screenshot
PasswordBox screenshot

PasswordBox’s Legacy Locker offers another option. This password manager lets you designate a “digital heir” who will inherit access to your Password Box account — and, by extension, all the logins contained in it. It can also store your credit card, driver’s license, and membership card data and let you securely share your logins before you kick. The advantage here is that if your passwords change or you add accounts, your information is always up to date.

What happens if PasswordBox goes belly-up before you do? The company has secured enough funding and cloud storage to maintain users’ account data “for years to come,” a company spokesperson says.

Whatever you choose to do, start doing it now. Because you never know if your next log-in will be your last.

“Death is the final log off,” Carroll says. “You don’t have the opportunity to go back and fix it.”

Related: Watch David Pogue on CBS News.

Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at