Data Life After User Death: Google's Latest Tool Acts As Digital Will

Google's Inactive Account Manager is a feature that functions much like a digital will, letting users choose settings for what they want to happen to data in many of their Google accounts if they die or if those accounts become inactive for pre-determined periods of time.

Inactive Account Manager is available now for users of Google services, which includes +1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; and Google Voice and YouTube. Inactive Account Manager can be accessed in the Google Account settings page.

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However, Google Apps, the Mountain View, Calif.-based company's free cloud-based productivity application suite, is not currently eligible for the new feature.

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"Not many of us like thinking about death - especially our own," said product manager, Andreas Tuerk in Google's public policy blog. "But making plans for what happens after you're gone is really important for the people you leave behind."

Available options to users include designating other people to be notified in the event an account becomes inactive, sharing data with those contacts or deleting accounts altogether.

With the new feature, Google joins other companies in their efforts to manage account privacy and security settings beyond a user's lifetime. In 2009, Facebook announced the memorializing of accounts in the event of a person's passing, to protect their privacy.

Inactive Account Manager is meant for consumers, but organizations using Google's business services can access employee accounts if needed, said Allen Falcon, CEO of Cumulus Global, a Westborough, Mass.-based solution provider specializing in deployment, data migration training and support services for businesses.

"As a consumer-focused feature, Inactive Account Manager isn't available for businesses; however, most businesses should have policies in place in the event that an employee is suddenly no longer with the company," said Falcon.

For SMB users, Google Apps for Business, a paid service that costs $50 per user per year, is a commercial version of Google Apps that includes Google's familiar features including Calendar, Drive, Docs, Sheets and Gmail. In case of an incident, the company has access to an individual's business account to reassign documents, clean out emails and backup important files, Falcon said.

"Users can be assured [there will be] no data loss with Google Apps for Business," said Falcon.

He cautioned, though, that businesses need to corral use of consumer-focused Google services. "Businesses need to be careful if they are using personal accounts. We even recommend that if you use YouTube that the YouTube account be under Google Apps for Business."

For consumers, Inactive Account Manager offers the option to wipe out data from their accounts or notify a "trusted contact" if the account hasn't been used for three, six, nine or 12 months. The "trusted contact," as designated by the account holder, can receive shared data via email from the Google team in the event of a death and inactivity.

Google has implemented a fail-safe to prevent unintentional data sharing or the wrongful deletion of accounts, namely that it will notify users via text or email before any action is taken.

"Before our systems take any action, we'll first warn you by sending a text message to your cellphone and email to the secondary address you've provided," wrote Tuerk.

With the new feature, Google aims to protect users' privacy while helping them plan their "digital afterlife," Tuerk said.

"We hope that this new feature," said Tuerk, "will enable you to plan your digital afterlife -- in a way that protects your privacy and security -- and make life easier for your loved ones after you're gone."