Time magazine once described Lauren Weinstein as an internet-policy expert and privacy advocate. Also a long-time Slashdot reader, he now brings this cautionary blog post “to share with you an example of what Google account recovery failure means to the people involved…”
In this case it’s a 90-year-old woman who “For at least the last decade… was just using the stored password to login and check her email,” according to an email Weinstein received:
When her ancient iPad finally died, she tried to add the gmail account to her new replacement iPad. However, she couldn’t remember the password in order to login…. I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted to contact a human being at google tech support, but it’s pretty much impossible. They also don’t seem to have an exception mechanism for cases like this.
So she had to abandon hopes of viewing the google photos of her (now deceased) beloved pet, her contacts, her email subscriptions, reminders, calendar entries, etc… [I]t’s difficult to know what to say to someone like this when she asks “what can we do now” and there are no options… It’s tough to explain that your treasured photos can’t be retrieved because you’re not the sort of user that Google had in mind.
Weinstein adds “this is by no means the worst such case I’ve seen — not even close, unfortunately.”
I’ve been discussing these issues with Google for many years. I’ve suggested “ombudspeople”, account escalation and appeal procedures that ordinary people could understand, and many other concepts. They’ve all basically hit the brick wall of Google suggesting that at their scale, nothing can be done about such “edge” cases.
Here’s Google’s page for providing an alternate recovery email address and phone number. Unfortunately, the 90-year-old woman’s account “was created so long ago that she didn’t need to provide any ‘recovery’ contacts at that time,” according to the email, “or she may have used a landline phone number that’s long been cancelled now…”