How to make your Gmail account self destruct

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Privacy Please is an ongoing series exploring the ways privacy is violated in the modern world, and what can be done about it.

What happens after you die doesn’t need to be a mystery. At least when it comes to your email, that is.

As we move through life there are few things that we truly take with us. A family heirloom, perhaps. Your loved ones, if you’re lucky. And, more and more frequently, one of those things happens to be an email account steadily filling up with personal correspondence, bills, medical records, and embarrassing moments from your past.

And thanks to the modern wonder of cloud computing, that collection will likely long outlast you. Unless you set your entire Google account to self destruct after your death — which, thanks to Google’s Inactive Account Manager, you can do.

Why you should enable Inactive Account Manager

Take a moment to think about the contents of your email account. Likely spanning from the quotidian and mundane to the extremely revealing, as the years progress your email account will accumulate evidence of the life you’ve lived.

Which can be extremely useful. It’s also extremely personal. Once you’re gone, is there really a reason for this compendium of deeply revealing data to sit for who knows how long on Google’s servers?

Notably, Google insists it doesn’t do anything too creepy with the contents of your inbox.

“[Per Google CEO Sundar Pichai’s] blog post in June 2020, we don’t sell your information to anyone, and we don’t use information in apps where you primarily store personal content — such as Gmail, Drive, Calendar and Photos — for advertising purposes,” explained a Google spokesperson over email.

However, that statement reflects an updated privacy policy from Google. Google announced in only 2017 that it would stop scanning the contents of users’ Gmail inboxes for advertising purposes. Policies, in other words, can change given enough time. And there’s a lot of time after you die.

Setting your Gmail account to self-destruct after you die can be just another part of getting your affairs in order. No one wants to leave behind a mess, even if it’s only a digital one.

How to enable Google’s Inactive Account Manager

Turning on Google’s Inactive Account Manager is a quick process, but as there are various settings you can tweak you want to make sure you do it in a way that makes sense for you.

But before we get into that, it’s important to understand what this setting actually does and how it works. It doesn’t magically know when you’ve died, for example. Instead, it uses inactivity as a proxy. So, for example, if you don’t log into your Google account for a predetermined amount of time it’s only then — after Google attempts to contact you — that the Inactive Account Manager goes into effect.

“We will only trigger the plan you set up if you haven’t used your Google Account for some time,” explains Google.

Got it? You’re not going to flip this switch by mistake, in other words.

So, to set up Google’s Inactive Account Manager:

Screenshot of Google's Inactive Account Manage page.

Start it up for when you’ve wound it down.
Credit: Screenshot: Google

  1. Log into your Google account.
  2. Go to Google’s Inactive Account Manager page.
  3. Select “Start.”
  4. Choose how long Google should wait before it considers you gone — dead, or otherwise. Twelve months of inactively seems like a good amount of time, but tweak that setting to your liking.
  5. Now, because you don’t want your account being deleted on accident, Google gives you the option of entering a cellphone number as a backup contact method. “Before we take any action,” explains Google, “we’ll contact you multiple times by SMS and email.” Enter your cellphone number here.
  6. Decide which “contact email” you want to use.

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  7. Select “Next” and then choose who, if anyone, besides yourself you want Google to notify and share your data with after your account is officially deemed inactive. “You can choose up to 10 people for us to notify if your Google Account becomes inactive,” explains Google. “You can also give them access to some of your data.” A spouse? A child? No one? It’s up to you.
  8. Select “Next” then toggle the option which says “Yes, delete my inactive Google Account.” This only happens three months after your account is declared inactive.
  9. Select “Review Plan,” make sure everything is in order, then select “confirm plan.”

Congratulations, you have now officially done your first bit of digital estate planning for an online world.

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