Yahoo Refuses Family Access to Slain Son’s Email

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There are just so many facets and angles to this story, it’s almost impossible to determine if there is a right and a wrong, let alone who is which.

Justin Ellsworth, of Wixom, Michigan, was killed last month while on foot patrol in Iraq.


John Ellsworth, the grieving father of the 20-year-old Marine, asked Yahoo to please give him access to his son’s email account.

Yahoo politely declined, citing its privacy policy.

Now, this raises some interesting issues. Online privacy policies are (or should be) considered sacrosanct.

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On the other hand, when you pass away, generally all of your possessions which are not otherwise divided by a will are passed on to your next of kin, in this case Justin’s father, John. This would typically include things such as letters and other mail, the contents of safe deposit boxes, the contents of a locker – all things which arguably are afforded the same degree of privacy while you are alive, but which pass on to and become the property of an immediate family member when you are gone.

Is email any different? Should it be?

Now, it may be that Yahoo would actually like to give Mr. Ellsworth the access which he seeks, but to cover themselves, they need some sort of legal impetus. It is not at all uncommon for ISPs to almost invite, and certainly welcome, a subpoena which allows them to divulge the misdeeds of a user which their privacy policy would otherwise prohibit, for example. Most privacy policies state quite clearly that if required by a court of law, they will share your otherwise private information. Perhaps Yahoo is hoping for a similar outcome here.

 

If Justin’s father decides to go that route, he won’t have to look far to find an attorney or two willing to take the case. In fact, offers of help have been pouring in from across the country. And not just from attorneys offering free legal services and concerned samaritans offering money, but even from computer forensic experts offering to help crack his son’s password.

Said Ellsworth, “It’s an overwhelming response. … Things are really moving. I’m very encouraged by it all, but I still have my reservations.”

It’s certainly a tough situation, and it will be interesting to see how it resolves.

In the meantime, of course, our hearts and thoughts go out to the Ellsworth family, and to all families who have recently lost a loved one.

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The Internet Patrol is and always has been free. We don't hide our articles behind a paywall, or restrict the number of articles you can read in a month if you don't give us money. That said, it does cost us money to run the site, so if something you read here was helpful or useful, won't you consider donating something to help keep the Internet Patrol free?
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2 thoughts on “Yahoo Refuses Family Access to Slain Son’s Email

  1. Too bad that there is no mention of WHY the parents wanted their late son’s emails…the natural sympathy everyone feels for a parent wishing to have one last glimpse into the final thoughts of their child might be diminished if it happened to be that their were additional motivations involved (such as if the parents were perhaps seeking information to support a lawsuit against a defense contractor for a fauilty product which didn’t protect their son). Grief and a desire for revenge (or greed) each generate different emotional responses to the parents, and without more details, I’d say Yahoo was right to uphold privacy. Common sense dictates that if the son WANTED the info to go to the parents, he would have emailed it to them. The fact that he didn’t seems to indicate that his wishes were for them not to have it, and for Yahoo to do otherwise would be contrary to his last wishes. Yahoo did the right thing…at least as far as the available information indicates.
    –David

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