Thursday, February 03, 2005

What Happens to Your Data When You Die, Redux

Rob Hyndman has posted a brief discussion of the controversy surrounding what should happened with the e-mail account of a US Marine who was killed in action in Iraq. His family want access to the account, but the service provider is refusing to hand it over. Among his comments, Rob writes, in "What Happens to Your Data When You Die, Redux":

"Finally, it's interesting to me that this debate is in part being presented as a debate about privacy. I don't think it ever would have occurred to me that the private letters of a person's lifetime, stored away in a dusty trunk in an attic somewhere, ought to by default be burned instead of passed on (unless a will said they should be burned), out of a desire to protect privacy. As a society, we are already comfortable with that way of treating information. Electronic information should not be treated any differently. It's not about privacy - we already have the tools to deal with that issue. And now, we have more tools - for example, the ability to offer very customized terms of service to address very specific needs. It's about service providers having failed to consider this issue adequately when they were composing terms of service ...."

I share Rob's opinion. The deceased have privacy rights (at least under Canadian law), so personal information needs to be protected. But ... Someone has to be in a position to authorize the collection, use or disclosure on behalf of the (former) individual. Someone has to be able to exercise the individual's right to access. We can't have a situation where all personal information is locked down as soon as someone dies. Logically, it should be the executor. If it is not the executor, who would it be? If you have a will, certainly the guy you choose to make sure your kids are provided for and to divvy up your stuff is trusted enough to decide what to do with your e-mail. If you want to keep something from your estate or your executor, specifying it in your will is only sensible. Or tell your ISP that you want your account erased if you die. Having to litigate something like this is a bit silly; forcing a grieving family to litigate it is even sillier.

(By the way, if you're interested in privacy and technology, you should bookmark Rob's blog.)

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