With a growing percentage of contemporary life lived online, the question “What happens to my data?” is finding its way into end-of-life plans that were once concerned medical decisions and who gets grandma’s spoon collection.
Google wants to help users make a plan. On Thursday, the search behemoth announced Inactive Account Manager, a feature that will allow users to choose to have their data purged—after three, six, nine, or 12 months without activity—or transferred to trusted contacts.
“We hope that this new feature 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,” reads a post on Google’s Public Policy Blog.
To prevent users from inadvertently losing data in the case of a long—as opposed to eternal—vacation, Google will contact those who enroll in Inactive Account Manager with an email or text message before their chosen “timeout period” ends. The feature will deal with data from Google services “+1s; Blogger; Contacts and Circles; Drive; Gmail; Google+ Profiles, Pages and Streams; Picasa Web Albums; Google Voice and YouTube.”
Questions about what happens to the remnants of a person’s internet life after they die surfaced several years ago, when Facebook began receiving complaints from users who had been encouraged by the site to connect with members of their network they knew to be deceased.
As a solution, the site introduced “memorialized” profiles: when a friend or family member alerts Facebook of a user’s death, the site transitions the deceased’s profile to a page where people can leave messages and share memories, and prevents the profile from appearing in features that suggest interactions with other users.
“Obviously, we wanted to be able to model people's relationships on Facebook, but how do you deal with an interaction with someone who is no longer able to log on?” wrote Facebook’s former chief security officer Max Kelly in a 2009 post on the site’s blog. “When someone leaves us, they don't leave our memories or our social network.”