December 21, 2004 2:49 PM PST

Yahoo denies family access to dead marine's e-mail

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The family of a U.S. Marine killed in Iraq was denied access to the soldier's Yahoo e-mail account due to the company's policies, raising questions of whether businesses should balance privacy with special requests.

The Marine, Justin Ellsworth, 20, was killed in November by a roadside bomb in Falluja while assisting civilian evacuations before the large-scale military offensive against insurgents in the city, according to a report in the Detroit Free Press. But when Ellsworth's father John tried to recover his e-mail account, he was barred due to Yahoo's policy of not giving e-mail passwords to anyone besides the account holder.

A Yahoo spokeswoman said the company's terms of service require the company not to disclose private e-mail communications for its users. Yahoo will turn over the account to family members only after they go through the courts to verify their identity and relationship with the deceased. After 90 days of inactivity, Yahoo deletes the account.

"Emotionally, this is very difficult for all involved," said Yahoo spokeswoman Mary Osako. "However, there are important reasons why we feel it is important to uphold the preferences that are part of the agreement we have with our users regarding their privacy. What all of us are looking for is a path that upholds individual privacy and also fully respects a family's request."

John Ellsworth's battle against Yahoo raises the issue of whether companies should depart from their policies under certain circumstances. Some e-mail providers, such as America Online, allow next-of-kin to access e-mail accounts of the deceased by submitting documents proving the relationship and by faxing a copy of the death certificate. AOL does not require loved ones to go through the courts.

An EarthLink representative said the company also has policies in place for special circumstances involving the death of a family member similar to AOL's. A Microsoft representative could not immediately comment.

The Marines have a system of returning personal items to families and next-of-kin. The families receive the soldier's possessions at the time of death, as well as items in storage at his or her base in the United States, ranging from cars to crates of personal possessions left behind before shipping out. All letters destined for mail are sent to their recipients, and received mail, including opened letters, are sent to their families.

"Each Marine gets a crate or large boxes to pack stuff in," said Marine spokesman Brian Driver. "Whatever's in there gets sent back. Period."

Because infantry on the front lines do not get a Marine e-mail account, many soldiers turn to the couple hundred Internet cafes set up

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23 comments

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I cannot believe this
I cannot believe that they have to go through the courts for this. That is what identifacation is for. Also if you do not log into your yahoo account don't they disable it and eventually delete it? Boy that would be horrendous.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Maybe I am cold hearted?
I don't think the father should be allowed to access the mailbox.
It was the son's mailbox and maybe not all the information in it is related to the father.
A mailbox is private like a diary.
Posted by BazNZ (81 comments )
Link Flag
Atleast we know they're secure
I guess that goes to show that Yahoo really respects their users privacy. I think it's kind of mean that they won't let the family members get into his account, but that would sorta be like hacking. I dunno why they would want to get into his mail account anyway, I doubt it has anything to do with his case.
Posted by PCCRomeo (432 comments )
Reply Link Flag
What a bunch of Crap!!
What can we do about this? Merry Christmas Yahoo! Shame on you!
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Think about it
If Yahoo! had opened access to accounts with such minimal identification, you can bet there would be a case in which someone faked an ID faxed to them (it's not that hard) and compromised someone's privacy. Then all of you on here would be yelling at Yahoo! for not being more secure. I'm not sure I want my family to be reading my email after I'm gone anyway. And it's not Yahoo's position to decide who gets access to my account when I'm dead. Give them a break!
Posted by (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
It's his mail, not theirs
Who knows what's in his mailbox? Everyone's life is their own and the Marine might be horrified to know that his family wants to poke around his possessions. Yahoo shouldn't open it up at all.
Posted by Anonymous1234567890 (53 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The USMC policy on returning items of deceased...
...includes going through the items to ensure nothing offensive is sent to a grieving family. Is Yahoo expected to go through and remove emails showing their son was subscribed to adult websites? Are they supposed to determine which emails from which girls they shouldn't include? Hey, it's wartime, the guy probably saved a few racy letters to get him through the lonely times. It's totally wrong to make a direct comparison to these policies.
Posted by JonathanMurray01 (5 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The soldier is entitled to his personal privacy in death as well as life
I am an Army brat and the son of a vietnam vet, so I view things in terms of the soldiers point of view. This case involves personal privacy of the soldier, whether alive or in death. There may be personal items the soldier does not wish to share with his family, even in death. These were the terms he signed up with Yahoo when he was alive and they should be carried out, even in death. If the soldier had wished for his family to read his email, he would have shared his username/password with them. Respectfully - Bill S.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Soldiers privacy? Soldier estate?
To everyone who thinks this Marine 'deserves his privacy in death':

How did you come to the conclusion that ‘personal items the soldier does not wish to share with his family’ exist ONLY in his email? How did you come to the conclusion that there are no ‘personal items the soldier does not wish to share with his family’ anywhere else in his belongings? Did you ASSUME? (The correct answer here would be ‘YES’)

If this Marines' parents have been named executors of his estate (for those of you in Rio Linda, an ‘estate’ is all of a persons property and assets), then they are LEGALLY entitled to access ALL his possessions, documents and correspondence, INCLUDING ALL HIS EMAIL, Yahoos' policy and your well-intended but misguided sense of privacy be damned.

Additionally, if I am not mistaken courts have generally ruled that the 'right to privacy' generally does not extend to the deceased.
Posted by (3 comments )
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Privacy, courtesy
No one made any such ASSumptions. The comparison the article makes to USMC policy was flawed, and pointed out. The rest of the Marine's personal effects will be dealt with in the manner prescribed by whomever is the current custodian, and in accordance with any applicable laws.

If there are laws governing this matter, then it's a non-issue, but don't try to hold up existing USMC policy to support it, as it's simply untrue.
Posted by JonathanMurray01 (5 comments )
Link Flag
Thank you Yahoo.
My e-mail accounts are MY email accounts. Nobody has the right to hijack my account, even if it's my own family trying to remember me. When I clicked the "I agree to Terms of Service" button I also believe that my service provider will protect my privacy. When I die, the information on my computer, as well as online accounts should die with me.
Posted by (1 comment )
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Privacy and law
Having served during the the Gulf war in '91 I remember creating a will and also giving my parents power of attorney. Now in this case I do not know if a will was created or a power of attorney. Those could possibly give the parents all the rights they need regardless.

I too believe have heard that the rights of the deceased are not the same as those alive. In this case, I feel Yahoo is perfectly valid in their response, but could at least extend the deletion period.

Someone died, unexpectedly, and as such has left unfinished business. Yahoo should have the deceny and good business sense to see that extending the deletion policy beyond 90 days to allow the family to take appropriate action neither violates their precious privacy policy ( which is self imposed and may be amended at anytime making it weak in a court of law, look at other privacy suits ) nor tarnishes their image as this has done.

Privacy is important but nothing is truly private in the end ( can we say Strom Thurmond's daughter).
Posted by sonicdivx (15 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Yahoo has got to be kidding
Yahoo will only release the guy's dead son's e mail only if a court MAKES them? The guy's family is getting offers for help from a mess of people and I hope Yahoo gets turned insideOUT for this outrage. Further, I want to know how the soulless, petty little POS who made this decision can sleep at night.
Posted by RDT64 (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
OBsurd
Obviously, Yahoo has got to be crazy. I understand the policy regulations and privacy laws, but under certain circumstances policies should be allowed to bend and make concessions. Yahoo, where is your patritism, your concern for grieving families of brave soldiers? Yahoo, where is your Christmas spirit? Yahoo, show some heart and allow the family access to the email account contents whether you publicly divulge the fact that you are providing access or merely send the family print outs of the emails contained as an annomious "Christmas gift." If the family had not directly approached the company and asked for the password, but had somehow sent an email to them saying they forgot their password, they would be in the account by now as they would have answered the security question and have a new password sent to them!!

My thoughts are with the family through this difficult time and Thank-you to all the brave soldiers fighting overseas for a better world.
Posted by (1 comment )
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i agree
i feel for the family, but i agree with yahoo's decision
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
Yahoo not supporting our troop? Can that be?
I'm surprised Congress hasn't ruled on this already.
Posted by pkeyrich (12 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Why do they Wish to get into his acco. in the first place?
Yahoo! is doing the right thing! See ppl thoise days are not smart and yahoo is called "unpatiotic" because they respect users right to privey, Some ppl r stupid.
Posted by Greg465 (90 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Regarding the account
The only reason why my brother wanted into the account was that justin had stated he had alot of pictures and letters from people all around the world thanking him and giving him support while serving over in Iraq and justin wanted his dad and himself to make a scrapbook out of it when justin return,of course that didnt happen the way we wanted it as far as justin's return but he now home and in a peaceful place.But as far as the family owning anyone an explaination to this battle with yahoo this is none but this fight is over with them and as a family we have moved forward and started to work on other projects regarding justin and his memory.
Posted by (1 comment )
Link Flag
MAYBE AN "ONLINE WILL" WITH EACH ACCOUNT HONORING THE OWNERS WISHES ?
Posted by ssttaann (2 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Its a lesson for us to keep secret informaiton very secret and atleast at some where, in a locker or in a Will, so that our family or kids may not suffer after our death. My brother died and i am having the same problem but i agree to the yahoo concerns. Its our responsibility to keeps things straights even after death. wish all of you very good luck.
Posted by fonline (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
My brother died nearly 4 years ago, and today I got an email from his yahoo account with a spam ad embedded. It was sent to all his contacts from 4 years ago! How is this possible if they delete inactive accounts after 90 days? I never had the password and it never mattered before, but it was awful getting the message. I searched the yahoo site but could not find a person to contact to ask them to look into and deactivate the account. ANy suggestions?
Posted by mellincoly (1 comment )
Link Flag
My wife died in 2007. My 6 daughters and I have been receiving e-mails from her account almost since she passed away when some low life scum bag hacked her account. Now I can't find a way to de-activate the account. This is very disturbing for my kids. I think Yahoo should allow a little common sense to enter into situations like these.

Tony Mayer
Posted by Tony_Mayer (1 comment )
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