Families Struggle to Delete Loved Ones' Online Presence After Death

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Peter Swire, a privacy expert and law professor at Ohio State University, says companies are hampered by the need to keep their site secure above all else.

"The best computer security response can shift over time," Swire said. "If death certificates get too easy to fake, then people will ask for something else."

At Google, the requirements to access a deceased user's account are broken down into a two parts. The first step is to provide a death certificate for Google to review. If Google deems the form acceptable, it then emails specific instructions for part two of the process. That involves getting a court order and possibly further documentation before allowing access.

All of these documents must be faxed or mailed (not emailed) directly to Google.

For bereaved family members, the difficulty in shutting down the profiles and email accounts can be maddening. Woods is still angry about the number of times Yahoo customer service reps insisted there was nothing they could do. "I can tell you I shut down my Yahoo account," Woods said.

For those looking to avoid such problems, Swire recommends that users be proactive about their online presence.

"For people with an active life online, plan for this as part of your will," Swire said. "Name someone as your [legal] personal representative and have that ready to be proved."

As people live more of their lives online, however, Swire says that it might become impossible to avoid the virtual graveyards.

"My grandparents had their obituaries in the paper," Swire said. "These days, for many people, the obituaries might be a Facebook page."

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