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Should Your Family Get Facebook Access When You Die?

Does a grieving family's desire to know more trump the rights of individuals to maintain their privacy after death?

I joined Facebook on May 9, 2004.

It was almost the end of my freshman year at UCLA, which I spent crammed into a dorm room with two roommates, playing John Mayer and Usher CDs on repeat with my Discman (children of the world ask, "Your what?").

I had a cellphone, but you were far more likely to reach me on AIM (AOL Instant Messenger) than by calling, especially since I had practically no reception from Cingular in my dorm.

It doesn't feel like it has been a long time—until I think about what someone would have access to if they could read everything I'd posted on Facebook between now and then.

Shudder.

That's why I get nervous when I read stories like the Wall Street Journal's "Life and Death Online: Who Controls a Digital Legacy?" (behind a paywall) and this piece from NBC's Rock Center "Digital Afterlife: What happens to your online accounts when you die?" (no paywall).

The gist of the stories is this: A loved one dies and family members fight to gain access to online accounts like Facebook to hold on to a piece of their daughter, or brother—and they can't due to privacy rules and laws.

In the WSJ article, which came out this weekend (sorry about the paywall), 16-year-old Alison Atkins died and her family thought it might have been suicide because she was sick and struggling with it. But how could they know for sure?

The teen's Facebook and Twitter passwords were saved on her computer (which the family had someone hack into), giving her family access to her private thoughts.

This might have been when I yelled "No!" at the screen:

Ms. Atkins used her access to Alison's accounts to change Alison's privacy settings, she says. She gave herself access to her sister's private Twitter posts, and unblocked herself and her parents on Alison's Facebook profile.

It's hard to argue with a grieving family's quest for a connection—any connection—they can get with their loved one, but inside I'm reading this and wondering "What about her privacy?"

Asked if she felt Alison had a right to privacy, her mother says she doesn't believe so. "She was my child. I felt I had a right to know."

I'm not a parent, so for the parents out there: Do you agree? Do you side with your right to know over the rights of the child to have privacy? The teen's family ended up coming across a secret blog, suicidal thoughts and many more private musings before the sites automatically logged out and they couldn't log back in. It may seem more clear-cut here, where the child is a minor, but what about for older children?

In the NBC story linked above, it was a 21-year-old man who committed suicide, without leaving a note. His family wanted to access his accounts to see what he was thinking:

“We are reeling with the reality of being parents who not only have our son who has died, but a very difficult death on top of it which is not anything we ever saw coming, which has added to our desire to really want to know why,” said Helen Stassen from her home in Prescott, Wis.

User agreements between social media sites like Facebook and Twitter guarantee users privacy, but families and lawyers have tried to argue that these accounts should be included in the estate, which would be turned over to the family.

I come down on the side of privacy, but I can see how grief could compel people to push for something different. What do you think?

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