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Senior Correspondent

As frustrating as it is when Google closes down powerful products — I wrote recently about the demise of the excellent Google Reader program — the company is nonetheless ahead of the curve when it comes to necessary ideas. Its Google Maps app is a superb way to find your way around with a smartphone, and now it has introduced Inactive Account Manager. It’s title doesn't inspire immediate enthusiasm, but what Google is looking at is a very real problem. After all, what are we to do with our digital assets when we are incapacitated or, heaven forbid, die?

This is not the sort of topic I normally associate with digital tools, and in fact there was a time when I blithely looked forward to digitizing formerly bulky physical assets. Years ago when I served as executor for a family member who had died, I wound up hauling a vast amount of books, records, radio and audio equipment and various tools back to a storage area near my home. Say what you will about digital books (I’m a collector of first editions, so I love my books), the Kindle and its ilk compress our reading matter into one easy to move volume.

But as so often happens as we get used to technology, the ramifications of our choices take a while to sink in. Suppose someone you know dies and leaves thousands of emails, photos and status updates spread across social media services from Facebook to Flickr to Twitter? Heck, this person might even have left posts on Google’s less than breakthrough product Google+. All of that goes into a weird kind of limbo when the user dies, and there have been cases, as happened not long ago with Yahoo, when a family couldn’t get access to a soldier’s emails.

The death rituals of our society always include a huge dose of paperwork and frustration at a time we are least equipped to handle red tape. What Google has done is to allow you to control your email (assuming you’re using Google’s own Gmail service, which I highly recommend), as well as online photos in Picasa photo albums, files you’ve stored in Google Drive, your contacts, and any blog posts you’ve created through Google’s own Blogger service. Inactive Account Manager (expect a name change in the near future to something more appealing) will tackle the problem of whether or not we have the ability to pull our materials out of the public view. You can learn more about it by checking your Google Account’s settings page, or search Google.

What happens is this: The still healthy you sets up Inactive Account Manager so that after a time of your choice — three, six, nine or twelve months — an account which has gone inactive can either have its data deleted or sent, in whole or in selected parts, to a person you have selected. I’m thinking about the thousands of emails I have on Google’s servers and wanting one thing to happen if I’m run over by a bus tomorrow: All of this material should disappear from Google but be sent on to my loved ones to be disposed of as they see fit.

Google isn't the first to work this turf, and of course we have to look at other options if we’re scattering data around on sites other than Google’s. Other services include SecureSafe, which offers various security options for your private information and also lets you preserve your digital assets by assigning beneficiaries to them. You make the decisions about whether to just delete your files and photos or transfer them to someone else. A fine level of control is available that lets you designate particular persons to receive specific data, a form of data inheritance that puts you in charge of your online identity when you are gone.

Another possibility is Death Switch. It’s a creepy name but the service is straightforward. The company’s automated system keeps checking on you on a regular basis to be sure you’re still alive. When it’s convinced you aren't, it sends out information you have pre-scripted to go to specific recipients. This could be files, photos or personal messages you’d like delivered in the event of your demise.

I think we’ll be seeing more options along this line as the idea begins to gain currency. The reason this is happening is, of course, that online identities have become so ubiquitous — almost everyone below sixty years old seems to have some kind of email access — that we’re now forced to adjust our older thinking to fit the realities of a social networking world. Watch companies like Facebook adjust to this new reality. At the moment, you need a court order to access the login information of a deceased family member, although you can request to ‘memorialize’ a page, meaning no one can sign in to the account although the data stays online.

But imagine the scenario when, as so often happens after a sudden death, family members begin to bicker, arguing over whether or not a court order should be obtained and a Facebook page deleted. Better to jump ahead and choose your own path through services like Google’s. It’s now incumbent upon the other social media sites that have used our personal information to their own great advantage to come up with privacy policies that can help families in this predicament. Google’s latest service will likely force the hand of Facebook, Twitter and other sites, giving their users more control over what happens in the event of a calamity.

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