Should Family Have Access to Email of Dead Relatives

This is making the rounds in a very big way during the last several days. A Marine with a Yahoo! Mail account has died, and the family requested Yahoo! to give them access to the account in order to read the deceased emails. Yahoo! refuses since this violates their privacy policy.

Most news coverage, and direct blog coverage, seems to agree that the family should be given access. But on reports which are open for comments, most comments seems to agree that Yahoo! are right (This statistic is based on my own private observation, after seeing this on about 5-6 official news sources, and 7-8 blogs).

Personally, I totally and completely agree with Yahoo! here.

It’s not that I can’t see the family’s side. The parents lost a son, and see this as one of the few links left to them, and a way to have some more memories. That’s understandable.

It does not, however, give them the right to read his private emails. The fact that he died doesn’t mean that he no longer deserves his privacy (most major legal systems in the modern world probably agree on this point). Anything in those messages that he wanted his family to know about, he could have told his family about already of his own accord. Why should private letters that he didn’t explicitly want the family to have should go to the family just because he can no longer refuse?

I know for a fact that I would very much prefer my family not to read my private emails.

There’s nothing really bad or secret in most people’s private emails. The stuff goes over the Internet, and in Yahoo’s case as clear text, so obviously someone that really wanted to could have intercepted and read those message. So it’s not those kind of secrets.
But there is a certain sense of privacy. You don’t send anything that would kill you (pardon the pun) if it were to be made public, but you also don’t expect what you send to actually go and become public.

In many cases the family will have little to gain from emails. It’s about relationships they don’t know know well enough, or from the right directions, to understand. Or commercial stuff which is no longer relevant and shouldn’t bother them. But even if they do, the mailbox owner did not want the family to have access to those emails, so they shouldn’t have it.

I know people that don’t mind other specific people, maybe family
members, reading their email (sometimes only on some of their
mailboxes, of course). In all those cases they already gave the trusted persons their
passwords, under an understanding of what are the right and wrong
causes to use them.
If one of those people were to die, it would have been alright for
those that were trusted with the password to read the emails. But in
this case the guy did not give his password to his family. This is a
clear statement of intent. He did not want them to read his emails.

Again, what changed wasn’t that once he didn’t want them to have access and now he does. What changed was that once he didn’t want them to have access, and now he can’t be asked again. Surely the last expressed clear intent should hold, no?

In addition, while I’m not sure about the legal hold this would have specifically on Yahoo!’s privacy policy on this case, there is also the matter of the other people. Most email messages are sent between at least two persons. Not by a person to itself.

And the other person didn’t die. Probably none of them did. Those that were known friends know that he is dead by now. Those that the family knows are also aware that he is dead. If they want the family to have their joint correspondences, they can send the past messages to the family.

Well, they didn’t. Because they don’t want the family to have this. Not that I’m representative, but if one of my friends were to die, I’m pretty sure I would not want their family to read emails between us. The private common jokes, and language used after years of familiarity, often results in messages that can be pretty… bizarre… for someone who isn’t in the loop. And the families aren’t.  I can also clearly state that I’m not that unique in this regard, since I can already vouch that all of my friends are like that, and many of their friends that I got to hear about.

Also, email accounts have other uses. He may have used it to back up various purchases, or accounts at various Internet services. Whatever those were, the family should not get this backdoor to go there as well.

Or to conclude: No! Yahoo! should not give the family access to the messages. The family shouldn’t even dare to ask. And if they are forced to provide access, they should perhaps first erase the calendar and notepad data, and send automatic messages to all the people who’s addresses are in the address book and on stored messages, letting them know that private communications are about to be disclosed to someone else… By sending messages they implicitly consented to the recipient passing them onward, but not for Yahoo! to pass them onward to the family.

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