The answer is now: YES.
Google recently announced that beginning no sooner than the end of 2023, they would start deleting inactive accounts.
Let’s review what it means to be “inactive”, what you need to do, and why this might be a serious blow to our cultural history.
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Deleting inactive Google accounts
Google will begin deleting accounts inactive for over two years. You can protect all your Google accounts by signing in to each and doing anything. For inactive accounts with content you want to see preserved, you’ll need to take explicit steps to archive that content before it’s removed from the internet.
You’ll find the full announcement here: Updating our inactive account policies.
They’ve positioned this as security related — meaning it’s for our “protection”.
… if an account hasn’t been used for an extended period of time, it is more likely to be compromised. This is because forgotten or unattended accounts often rely on old or re-used passwords that may have been compromised, haven’t had two factor authentication set up, and receive fewer security checks by the user. Our internal analysis shows abandoned accounts are at least 10x less likely than active accounts to have 2-step-verification set up. Meaning, these accounts are often vulnerable, and once an account is compromised, it can be used for anything from identity theft to a vector for unwanted or even malicious content, like spam.
The net result is that the account, and everything in it, will be deleted.
Starting later this year, if a Google Account has not been used or signed into for at least 2 years, we may delete the account and its contents – including content within Google Workspace (Gmail, Docs, Drive, Meet, Calendar), YouTube1 and Google Photos.
Honestly, it’s not that difficult to keep your account active. Doing just about anything that requires you sign in to that account does the trick, and might include things you don’t even realize you’re doing.
- Reading or sending an email
- Using Google Drive
- Watching a YouTube video
- Downloading an app on the Google Play Store
- Using Google Search
- Using Sign in with Google to sign in to a third-party app or service
The important caveat, though, is that you must be signed in to your Google account when you do those things. Many of them — for example Google Search — don’t require sign-in. If you’re not signed in, then it doesn’t count as “activity”.
So… sign in. If you have multiple Google accounts, then take the time to sign in to each at least once a year or so to ensure they don’t get deleted.
They indicate you’ll get lots of warning. Emails will be sent not only to the email address of the account, but also to any recovery email addresses configured for the account. This is another case where making sure you’ve pro-actively set up recovery information, and kept it current, will help you avoid the loss. It would be a good idea to double check the settings every year as well.
Deleting means deleting. Gone. Forever. No recovery.
If after all the warnings and all the lack of activity on the account you’ve not done anything at all … then it’s gone. All of it.
Steven Capsuto captured the concerns nicely on Mastodon:
#Google just announced that going forward, any account not logged into for two years gets deleted.
This means huge amounts of rare or unique #video is about to disappear from #YouTube as accounts get flagged as inactive, such as when the user dies. Families’ #HomeMovies (often posted by an older relative for their family’s benefit), historical footage, rare #television clips, etc. What an incalculable loss to human #history and culture!
If there are videos important to you on someone else’s video channel, find a way to download them. And if you have rare #media of historical importance, consider leaving it to institutional #archives or lending it to archives for digital preservation.
I expect two significant fallouts from this:
- Families will lose precious memories as the accounts of deceased relatives are removed.2
- Society will lose access to precious artifacts contained in no-longer-maintained accounts.
Both are potentially devastating. I hope that archival organizations will somehow step in and save what needs to be saved before it disappears forever.
Email address re-use
One question not answered by the Google announcement is what happens to the email address associated with the Google account. Will it be released and available for re-use?
By that I mean that if “firstname.lastname@example.org” goes inactive, and is eventually deleted, can someone else come along and create a new account with that email address?
We do not know.
What we can say, though, is that if they can, it will be a new, empty account. It will not contain the old account’s information.
Keep your account active. Set yourself a yearly reminder if you need to for accounts you don’t access regularly.
Download, duplicate, or otherwise archive the content you care about that appears to be inactive. This applies specifically to the accounts of deceased family members and friends. If you have custodial access to the account, use Google Takeout to download everything (this access should also count as “activity”, resetting the two-year timer). If you don’t have access to the account then do what you can to download its content before it disappears.
This is an important topic I’ll be watching. Subscribe to Confident Computing for updates. Less frustration and more confidence, solutions, answers, and tips in your inbox every week.
Footnotes & References
1: Google backtracked on YouTube in response to feedback, but clearly the threat remains.
2: Yes, the original account holder should have the original files backed up and preserved somewhere, but experience shows that’s frequently not the case, or their originals are often long gone by the time the issue comes up.