How to protect your data when you die

Tips & tricks
3 mins
Tombstone with a padlock on it.

It’s a privacy question that concerns us all: What happens to all our online photos, location history, and data when we die?

Data privacy laws like the GDPR and the right to be forgotten give citizens of certain countries the power to scrub their personal information from the internet if they wish and hold tech companies accountable if they don’t adhere to specific safeguards when processing it.

Deleting your Facebook, Snapchat, or Instagram accounts are also an option when alive. Data is usually held for a predetermined period, but then scrubbed from servers entirely.

But laws pertaining to personal data in the case of one’s death are murkier. Since regulation has not caught up with technology, your data is largely left to the whims of the Big Tech companies. However, there are a few things you can do to solve this problem.

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#1. Set up Inactive Account Manager for Gmail

If you use Gmail, then it’s possible to signal to Google to delete your data after a period of inactivity. Navigate over to the inactive account page and start the process. While setting it up, you will be required to input an email address that is notified after three months of inactivity. However, this doesn’t mean only three months of not logging into your Gmail account. If you use the Chrome browser, YouTube, or other Google services while logged in to your account, Gmail will consider you active.

The inactive account page also allows you to notify someone you trust and give them the option to download and access your data across Google’s suite of products. You might be required to input identifying details though, such as their phone number.

#2. Choose a Legacy Account in Facebook

In the case of Facebook, users have the option to appoint a legacy contact that acts as a legal guardian in the case of their death. Legacy contacts can change your profile and cover photos, download your Facebook data, and respond to new friend requests, but they cannot read old messages. They can also ask Facebook to delete your account.

Users also reserve the right to have their accounts permanently deleted if they pass away. Facebook may memorialize accounts if it becomes aware of the death of a user, with the word “remembering” showing up next to their name.

Despite these features, Facebook could have up to 4.9 billion dead users by 2100, according to one estimate.

Instagram has a memorialization option too, but it’s unclear whether that’s wholly separate from Facebook, i.e., it’s possible that the accounts have to be managed separate from each other. Once activated, memorialization on Instagram works similarly, with no further updates allowed and the word remembering showing up next to the person’s name.

#3. Contact Twitter support

Twitter’s guidelines pertaining to deceased account deletion are slightly more cumbersome. As of right now, users don’t have the option to assign a legacy contact or set up inactive account processes.

Individuals connected to a deceased user can ask Twitter support to delete the account, but they must provide information about the deceased, a copy of their ID, and a copy of the death certificate.

Filling out Twitter’s privacy form is the first step. But once an account is scheduled for deletion, it is scrubbed entirely from Twitter’s servers. There is no memorialization option as is the case with Facebook.

#4. Update your will

There’s a growing trend to appoint a “digital executor” in your last will and testament. It could be as simple as storing all your passwords in a password manager like LastPass or 1Password and putting the master password in your will. Your loved ones can then access your account, save certain photos and memories, and schedule it for deletion.

Read more: New AI tech bodes ill for identity theft, scams, and propaganda

I like to think about the impact that the internet has on humanity. In my free time, I'm wolfing down pasta.