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 around Iraq and send correspondences through Web mail providers such as Yahoo, AOL and Microsoft's Hotmail.
Only officers outside the front lines get official Marine e-mail accounts used for interoffice communications. If the officer is killed, the Marines delete the accounts after retrieving messages that could be important for planning.
E-mail has become a source of information about soldiers on the front lines. Images of the war and correspondences to loved ones have helped paint a picture of life in Iraq and Afghanistan, while helping families stay in touch with loved ones serving abroad.
Soldiers killed in action may also have important information in their e-mail accounts to help families settle personal matters, such as closing out accounts or other housekeeping matters.
Ray Everett-Church, a legal expert on privacy issues, said companies should adhere to strong privacy policies, up to a point. In certain cases such as this, e-mail providers should make exceptions, he said.
"Any well-run organization should be capable of designing policies that adapt to unique and difficult circumstances," Everett-Church said. "In this case, I think that while it's good to have a consistent policy, it's not good to slavishly follow it in all circumstances, particularly one as sensitive as this."
Justin Ellsworth's father was hoping to access his son's e-mail account as one reminder of his son's life.
"I want to be able to remember him in his words," Ellsworth told the Associated Press. "I know he thought he was doing what he needed to do. I want to have that for the future. It's the last thing I have of my son."