How to Decide What Happens to Your Data When You Die

How to Decide What Happens to Your Data When You Die

It’s not always comfortable to talk about, but the statistics don’t lie: 100% of people are still, eventually, one way or another, dying. That inevitability raises some tough questions: Who gets your material possessions? Who will take care of the loved ones you leave behind? And who will have access to your digital life, with all of the photos, documents, emails, and memes you leave behind?

Some of this material is obviously more important. Perhaps you don’t think anyone really needs access to your Snapchat account when you’re gone, but email and banking logins can help family or friends close out your affairs, and they’ll probably also want to look through the memorable photos you’ve taken over the years.

You can just write down your usernames and passwords and keep the document in a safe place until you shuffle off this mortal coil, but that’s not a particularly secure or elegant solution. The big tech companies have over the years developed settings that are more sophisticated and easier for everyone involved. Here we’ll tell you how to set up your legacy using your Google, Apple, and Facebook accounts.

Google

The way that Google reminds you of your own mortality is through what it calls an Inactive Account Manager service. Open up your Google account page on the web, click Data and privacy on the left, then select Make a plan for your digital legacy. If you haven’t already been through this process, you can click Start to begin.

Provide the information as Google asks for it: You can list up to 10 contacts who will get access to your data after your account has been inactive for a certain amount of time. You can configure both how long this period of inactivity should be, and which Google apps and services your contacts will have access to (you could let them into your Google Drive account but not your Google Photos account, for example).

You can choose how long Google waits before marking your account as inactive. (Screenshot: Google) You can choose how long Google waits before marking your account as inactive. (Screenshot: Google)

When you’ve answered all the questions, you’ll be able to see a summary of your selections on the screen, and you’re able to make changes anytime you like. You can also give Google your contact email addresses and phone numbers — you’ll be contacted and warned if your account becomes inactive for whatever reason, so Google will actually check to see if you’ve died (or at least gone off the grid).

Your contacts aren’t notified during the setup process, but they will get an alert after your account has been inactive for the time specified, to the phone numbers and email addresses you’ve provided for them. You can also opt to have your Google account permanently deleted after you’re gone, in which case your chosen contacts will get a period of three months to download anything they need to download.

Apple

Apple is just about to add a new feature for account holders that works in a similar way to the Google approach: You can identify up to five people, what’s known as legacy contacts, who are given access to your iCloud data and information after you die. However, there are a few hurdles to overcome, because Apple still asks for proof of death to make sure your contacts aren’t trying to spy on your stuff while you’re still breathing.

You can specify a legacy contact or five through iOS 15.2 — at the time of writing it’s still in beta, but we expect it to roll out soon. The feature will also eventually appear in System Preferences on macOS, but so far it has yet to show up in either beta or final versions of the software. On iOS 15.2 or later, open Settings, then open your Apple ID page, then choose Password & Security and Legacy Contact.

Apple's legacy contact feature is just beginning to roll out. (Screenshot: Apple) Apple’s legacy contact feature is just beginning to roll out. (Screenshot: Apple)

You’ll need to provide an email address or a phone number from someone in your contacts to add them as a legacy contact. As you work through the setup process, you’ll be shown an access key QR code which you should share with the contact you’ve selected. They’ll be asked for this if they try and get access to your iCloud data after your death, and they’ll also be quizzed on a few basic facts about you (including your birthday) to make sure they are who they say they are.

Go back to the same legacy contact page to see who you’ve nominated and to make any necessary changes. If and when the time comes, your contacts will need to head to this digital legacy page on the Apple website to make a claim on your data, so make sure they know what they need to do ahead of time.

Facebook

You may not keep all that much that’s important on Facebook these days, but it’s likely to be a point of contact for you for a lot of people in your life, past and present. Facebook lets you delete your account after you die, or leave it in a memorialised state, which means friends and family will be able to share memories on your timeline, and all your photos and updates will stay as they are.

As with Google and Apple, Facebook lets you specify legacy contacts who can manage and look after your page if you decide to memorialise it. They’ll be able to accept friend requests, change your profile picture and cover photo, and decide who can post tributes. What they can’t do is log in as if they were you, and start making changes like deleting photo albums or posting new status messages.

Your Facebook account can stay online, managed by someone else. (Screenshot: Facebook) Your Facebook account can stay online, managed by someone else. (Screenshot: Facebook)

From Facebook on the web, click the drop-down arrow in the top right corner, then choose Settings & privacy, Settings, General, and Memorialization settings. Select Request that your account be deleted after you pass away and click Delete after death, and your account will get wiped once someone else notifies Facebook of your passing (with a death certificate as proof).

If you want to keep your account up and running as a tribute to the fantastic life you led — or maybe you just don’t want to deprive your friends of all the great pictures you took of them down the years — enter a Facebook contact in the Choose a friend box under Memorialization settings. They’ll get a notification to say you’ve added them as a legacy contact, and you can only have one legacy contact at a time.

Everything Else

Not every platform is as well set up for the finality of death as Google, Apple and Facebook are. Microsoft, for example, suggests seeking legal guidance if you need to get into someone’s account after they’ve gone — if you’ve got some important Outlook emails to share with friends and family after your passing, at the moment you’re just going to have to make sure they know your username and password (and have access to any two-factor authentication measures you might have set up).

Dropbox is another service where you might have important files that your loved ones need to access after you’ve gone. Dropbox requests that they file a support ticket with as much information as possible and proof that they’re entitled to access what you’ve left behind. They might also be able to access Dropbox files from your computer, if they have your Windows or macOS password.

1Password has an Emergency Kit you can pass on to a loved one. (Screenshot: 1Password) 1Password has an Emergency Kit you can pass on to a loved one. (Screenshot: 1Password)

In some cases your data is locked away and can’t be accessed. With Twitter, for example, family and friends can request that your account gets shut down, but they won’t be able to view your dashboard or your direct messages. Deactivation of a deceased user’s account needs to be specifically requested, and as usual a copy of the death certificate needs to be provided for security reasons.

Outside of the major accounts we’ve mentioned, provision for managing your data after you’ve got remains patchy from app to app. As we mentioned at the top, sharing your passwords is another opinion: 1Password has an Emergency Kit feature for this purpose, which makes the process a lot easier, for example. In general, it’s worth being aware of the information that the people closest to you might need, and leaving behind some way for them to access it.