From CNET News: William Talcott, a prominent San Francisco poet with dual Irish citizenship, had fans all over the world. But when he died in June of bone marrow cancer, his daughter couldn't notify most of his contacts because his e-mail account--and the online address book he used--was locked up. Talcott, 69, a friend of beatnik Neil Cassidy, apparently took his password to the grave.
The dilemma can be avoided by putting passwords to e-mail, photo, music and other online accounts in an estate planning document, attorneys say. E-mail providers don't typically offer access to accounts of deceased unless without relevant documentation. It's a vexing, and increasingly common problem for families mourning the loss of loved ones. As more and more people move their lives, address books, calendars, financial information, online, they are taking a risk that some information formerly filed away in folders and desks might never be recovered. That is, unless they share their passwords, which poses security threats.
"He did not keep a hard copy address book. I think everything was online," said Talcott's daughter, Julie Talcott-Fuller. "There were people he knew that I haven't been able to contact. It's been very hard."
"Yahoo (his e-mail provider) said it wouldn't give out the information due to privacy laws, but my dad is dead so I don't understand that," she said.
But it's not a question of privacy rights so much as property rights, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center.
"The so-called 'Tort of Privacy' expires upon death, but property interests don't," he said. "Private e-mails are a new category. It's not immediately clear how to treat them, but it's a form of digital property."
Attorneys advising clients on estate planning should ask them to determine who they want to have access to their computers when they die, Rotenberg said.
That's exactly what San Francisco-based estate planning attorney Michael Blacksburg does. "I advise clients to put all their passwords to things online in an estate planning document," he said.
Blacksburg also asks his clients what they want to have happen with their electronic media, like music in iTunes and photos in Shutterfly.
"The older generation is just getting in the habit of using computers," Blacksburg said. This problem will become more acute in coming years as more and more people become computer savvy, he added.
The situation poses a dilemma for e-mail providers that are pilloried by privacy rights advocates at the mere suggestion of sensitive data being exposed, at the same time they are expected to hand over the digital keys to family members when a customer dies.
Last year, Yahoo was forced to provide access to the e-mail of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq to his father, who got a court order in the matter.
"The commitment we've made to every person who signs up for a Yahoo Mail account is to treat their e-mail as a private communication and to treat the content of their messages as confidential," said Yahoo spokeswoman Karen Mahon.
View: Full Article (CNET News)