Advice

Sign out: how to close the accounts of someone you have lost

By Adam Westbrook 18 May 2017
Image: Getty/AntonioGuillem.
Summary

Internet companies don't always make it easy to close the accounts of a deceased person.

Losing a loved one is one of the hardest things to endure and sadly something that the internet unintentionally makes harder.

Death is something of a blindspot in Silicon Valley, and the algorithms of social networking sites often bite back with painful irony once someone has passed away.

Just imagine how it feels to be reminded by Facebook that it’s your late partner’s birthday.

In an article last week we argued that the best approach is to create a digital will (no matter your age or health). This will provide a designated “digital heir” with everything they need to close your online accounts for you.

Only 3 out of 10 people prepare even a physical will, let alone a digital one, which means at one point or another we may find ourselves trying to empty out the digital life of someone we’ve lost.

So what is the procedure on all these different platforms?

Read moreHow to prepare for a digital death

Google

Google manages a terrifying amount of our data.

There’s a good chance they’re handling the emails, photos, YouTube account and smartphone of your loved ones.

And here’s the thing: Google says it prioritises the privacy of data over everything else – which is great when you’re alive, but less good when you’re dead.

“…our primary responsibility is to keep people’s information secure, safe, and private. We cannot provide passwords or other login details. Any decision to satisfy a request about a deceased user will be made only after a careful review.”

Expect it to be time-consuming and difficult to get access to the accounts of a lost loved one, which is why taking action beforehand is so important.

Begin the process on this page, where you can request access, funds or data from a deceased user’s account.

Facebook

As you’d expect, some of the big social networks have well-established plans for handling the accounts of users who have died.

A death can be reported to Facebook via an online form. They’ll accept notifications from friends or family members so long as there is proof of the death.

Facebook’s policy is to turn the profile of a deceased person into a memorial. The page will remain with the prefix “remembering” and will not show up in public spaces.

However, in order to completely delete an account Facebook will only accept requests from immediate family members.

Finally, you can also nominate a person to handle your account once you pass away. To do this, head to the settings menu inside Facebook and look for the “Legacy” option in the General tab.

Either way, it is a good idea to make sure Facebook knows a user has passed away. It can extremely upsetting for friends and relatives to receive notifications of birthdays or friendship anniversaries out of the blue.

And as the writer Taya Dunn Johnson explains, it might be best not to hurry to Facebook too soon to announce the news.

Twitter

Twitter will give access to the executor of the will or verified family members. It has a simple online form, but will require a copy of a death certificate to complete the account deactivation.

Twitter say that “in certain circumstances” they can also remove any imagery of people who have died in order to respect the wishes of loved ones.

However, they say they weigh every request against public interest and the newsworthiness of certain media and warn they may turn down some requests – an important reminder that what we post on social media doesn’t really belong to us.

Instagram & Snapchat

Instagram has a form and will memorialise your account on receipt of proof of death. However, like Facebook, if you want your page deleted entirely, Instagram will only respond to requests from immediate relatives.

Snapchat has no easy procedure for reporting a deceased person’s account and deactivating, which means it will be a struggle for anyone tasked with doing so without both a username and password.

If you are unable to delete the account of a lost loved one, it will remain online but as Snapchat content is erased after 24 hours there ought to be no material belonging to them left online to erase.

WhatsApp and Skype

WhatsApp is owned by Facebook but unlike its parent, it appears to have little or no ways to close accounts, once a user has passed away.

This is complicated by the fact that accounts are tied to phone numbers, which are often reassigned to new customers once someone has died.

This has led to upsetting experiences. In 2015 a man appeared to send WhatsApp messages from beyond the grave to a group of baffled friends, a problem going back to at least 2013.

Skype, owned by Microsoft, is a little easier to manage. Legal next of kin can contact Microsoft’s customer services to request an account closure.

PayPal and Dropbox

It’s a better picture with the companies who manage money and files.

Paypal has a clear procedure and will close an account and pay out outstanding funds with the correct documentation.

Dropbox has updated its policy and say they it give access to a deceased person’s files with the correct documentation, although strangely you’ll have to do this via physical post, there is no online process.