Who Owns Your Data When You Die?

In May 2016, a New York Times media columnist’s Twitter account was taken over by a sexting bot, and flooded his nearly half million followers’ accounts with spam. In the context of increasing cases of account hacks, the incident wasn’t remarkable. Just that David Carr had been dead since 2015.


The Question of How Data Is Treated After The Owner’s Demise


Human death is followed by rituals that transform the body into ash, or dust, whether it’s through burial, or cremation. What’s left behind is legacy, memories, and – data, lots of it. The modern human is generating more data every day than he/she would dare to acknowledge.  Even your best of friends, your spouse, and your parents don’t know as much about you as do Google, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube, DropBox, and several other Internet giants.


Why Worry?


Let’s face the truth – we feed on data, we create data, we thrive on data, and data can actually come as close to defining us accurately as ourselves! Another truth that humans have to live with is – death is inevitable. Though it’s heavily discomforting to discuss matters of death, it’s entirely practical for anybody to wonder what’s going to happen to their data after their death. Here are some of the several reasons why understanding posthumous treatment of your data is important

  • Anybody would want their private information to remain private even after death.
  • People who own data of potential monetary worth have every right and reason to know how their heirs can benefit from it.
  • Your loved ones will not be able to find your digital data they don’t even know exists


Now that your interest is piqued, let’s tell you more on who owns the data of a person who’s no more.


Different Services Treat Posthumous Data Management Differently


In spite of the increasing buzz around the need for uniform posthumous data management and governance policies across web services, there’s barely any consensus. So, to understand what happens to your most valuable data assets after your death, understand how the most important web services deal with the question.




  • Facebook either shuts down a deceased’s account, or memorializes it.
  • It requires a valid death certificate and explicit permission to act on the account owner’s behalf to give the account to somebody.
  • Facebook lets users download their entire account data; this makes data transference after death much easier to manage.




  • Twitter is very clear in its stance; only the account holder gets account access.
  • Because Twitter is primarily a public communication medium, the lack of flexibility is easy to understand.
  • Like Facebook, Twitter offers an option for users to download their entire account data.
  • Twitter does try to work with the kin of deceased to delete or incapacitate the account, provided proof of death is shared.




  • Google, like with everything it does, focuses on simplicity in helping humans deal with their digital afterlife – via Inactive Account Manager.
  • When you ‘stop using Google’ (read ‘die’), you can pre-program Google to delete your data, or send selective data to trusted individuals.
  • Users can specify a time period of inactivity after which the defined rules take over, along with the Google accounts whose data you wish to be shared (Google +1, YouTube, Gmail, Blogger, etc.)




  • Microsoft has put in a comprehensive posthumous data management process called Next of Kin process.
  • After the Microsoft account owner’s death, the next of kin will need to send out an email at msrecord@microsoft.com and share proof of death or incapacitation along with your authority as an executor, benefactor, or power of attorney holder.
  • After verification, Microsoft share’s the deceased’s account data such as emails, attachments, address books, etc from  accounts like Hotmail, Live, MSN, or Outlook.com on a DVD.




  • Yahoo does not offer the option of transferring your account to an heir.
  • However, your next of kin can request for your Yahoo accounts to be closed after your death, via this request form.
  • The only practical method of securing Yahoo data for your benefactor is by sharing your account credentials, which is, unfortunately, a violation of Yahoo’s Terms of Service.




  • The deceased’s family members can request Instagram to memorialize your account after your death using this form.
  • Memorialized accounts can’t be logged in to, but remain visible.


Final Thoughts


Think for a moment why lawyers charge such exorbitant legal consultation fees in matters of wills. That’s because the transference of assets from the deceased individual to his/her heirs is rife with complications. Now, imagine how difficult it is to deal with an asset that’s absolutely intangible – data!

One of the most mature actions you could take, for any age, is to plan on how you wish your data to be managed after your death.

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