Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Is your e-mail private after your death?

The family a US Marine who was killed in action has been trying to persuade Yahoo! to provide them with access to his mail inbox. The grieving father is quoted by the the Associated Press (via Yahoo!, ironically):

'I want to be able to remember him in his words. I know he thought he was doing what he needed to do. I want to have that for the future,' said John Ellsworth, Justin's father. 'It's the last thing I have of my son.'

But without the account's password, the request has been repeatedly denied. In addition, Yahoo! policy calls for erasing all accounts that are inactive for 90 days. Yahoo! also maintains that all users agree at sign-up that rights to a member's ID or contents within an account terminate upon death.

'While we sympathize with any grieving family, Yahoo! accounts and any contents therein are nontransferable' even after death, said Karen Mahon, a Yahoo! spokeswoman.

Since the story appeared, offers of help have poured in from lawyers and hackers. (See: Yahoo! News - Father Seeking Marine's E-Mail Gets Help)

I have mixed feelings about this one. On one hand, your executors act as your personal representative and get to rummage through all your stuff. Should e-mail be excluded from that? Shouldn't Yahoo! have to respond to the executor if presented with a duly certified copy of the late soldier's will? On the other hand, it may bother many people to think that your family may be able to view all your personal e-mails after your death. Perhaps people ought to think about dealing with these matters in their wills and giving directions to their e-mail providers for what to do after they are gone. One more thing to worry about, I guess.

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