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Where Does Your Digital Data Go When You Die?

By Chris Neiger - Apr 13, 2013 at 3:00PM

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To help users decide what to do with all that data when that day comes, Google just released a new feature to set up a digital will of sorts.

Earlier this week, Google (GOOGL -1.34%) announced a new feature to allow its users to predetermine what happens to all of their Google data when they die. The service is called Inactive Account Manager (an admittedly boring name, according to the company), and although the settings don't have to go into effect only when you pass away, it makes you wonder what does happen to our data when we go away.

More than a gimmick
In the old days, all of our most important documents -- licenses, wills, and the like -- were stored in a safe in our house, or a safe deposit box at the bank. Nowadays, most of our documents, bank information, passwords, wills, and other important information is stored on our computers or online. Sure, some of us still have lots of paperwork bulging out of a box somewhere in the closet, but those days are numbered.

In today's world, we have pictures, videos, documents, emails, texts, online profiles, status updates, tweets, and whatever else floating around online. Maybe you don't care what happens to all this data after your time is done, and that's a valid argument, but it's likely that someone will. Loved ones and friends will be left to sort all that junk out. They'll be the ones shutting down accounts, sifting through Dropbox to find your will, downloading pictures of memories with you, and other sad things we don't like to think about. 

That's why Google's new feature is a sobering, but beneficial, reminder that part of our lives are lived online. Google will let its users set up ahead of time what they want to happen to their data across all of Google's online offerings. This means that Google+ profiles (if anyone's still using them), Gmail, YouTube, Blogger, +1s, Contacts, Drive, Google Voice, Picasa, and other data can be deleted or sent to a trusted contact when the day comes. You can set your account to go inactive after just a few months of inactivity and then have the data transferred or deleted. You will also be reminded by email or text before any changes happen -- you know, just in case you're not really gone.

A digital will, if you will
Google said in a blog post about the new settings, "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." Their statement isn't just a thoughtful one; it's actually quite serious. Americans spend billions on online security and identity protection when we're alive, but most of us will shell out $0 for it when we're gone. Should we be any less concerned that our data could still be accessible to hackers after we're gone? The same bank accounts, investments, credit cards, and other personal information may still be used by our family and friends when we're no longer here. Our data should at least be sent to someone we know so it can be used or deleted.

This may all sound a little morbid, but it's more practical than anything. If a will is an important thing to set up so that others know what to do with your stuff when you're done, then a digital will should be almost as important. No one may want all the pictures of your dog you posted to Facebook (FB 1.18%), but they will want some of your digital life. Some of your online information is important and should be protected. Which leads us to the question of why other companies don't have a similar settings like Google. Surely Facebook, as the world's largest social network, should have one. Any other company that stores online documents, such as Apple's (AAPL 0.17%) iCloud and Microsoft's (MSFT -0.23%) Office 365, should do the same. Heck, if the Bitcoin craze plays out the way some are hoping, then there may be some digital monies that need to be designated as well.

In the end, choosing where your digital data will end up isn't a decision just for your peace of mind; it's to make a difficult time for those you love just a little easier. It's a little relief, and it's one less thing to think about for the ones who were closest to you.

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