The importance of digital asset planning explained

Digital estate planning

“Privacy is not something that I’m merely entitled to, it’s an absolute prerequisite.” — Marlon Brando

Bricks and mortar businesses are inexorably coming to the realisation that a substantial amount of their business value is intangibly trapped in information. For online businesses, practically 100% of their assets are made up of information and the most valuable of all happens to be related to individuals. Information such as visitor, member, and client contact details are eagerly captured by online companies. The deeper and more detailed it gets, the better it is for the online enterprise. The ability to create an accurate client profile is true power and online businesses know it. They fight tooth and nail to attract new members, sign up subscribers and remain in front of as many contacts as possible. Individuals’ contact information and whatever other identity-related data they can cram into their customer databases is precious and allows them to put a value on their company, even if that value is largely theoretical.

If companies go through all this trouble to get data, would it not follow that their executives would rather part with their coveted reserved parking spots before they  consider allowing a single, hard-earned entry to be removed from their customer relationship management database? Absolutely! As long as the online businesses we deal with are subject to a privacy law based on the OECD data protection principles, we can count on the fact that limited retention is legislated and should expect our data to be purged from their systems after a ‘reasonable period of time’. What we should concern ourselves with is keeping track of all the data that is out there in detailed online and offline profiles. Social networking sites, email systems, other data sharing systems, e-commerce marketplaces and online auctions all try to build detailed profiles to allow for customisation of marketing messages, the likes of which deliver real value to online advertisers.

With the near complete penetration of the Internet across all age groups, we are increasingly likely to hear the term ‘digital estate planning’ (DEP) from tech-savvy lawyers. A search for this term yields a mere 70 hits on Google at the time of this writing, but give it a try in a year or two, and it be entrenched in the legal vernacular.

With our information now spread across dozens, perhaps hundreds of Internet sites and corresponding numbers of back-end databases, DEP is easier said than done. Social networking sites such as Facebook likely consider their early policy of ‘no deletion, only deactivation’ to have been a key driver of explosive growth as their user base shot past 100 million. Other sites that may have been more ethically inclined did not have the same opportunity to rekindle relationships with returning users. With global pressure to adopt data protection best practices, more and more firms are finding that they need to offer options for purging individual information from their systems.

The potentially vast amounts of information about deceased, Internet-active individuals may well turn into an insurmountable task for many, or an expensive task for a legal professional who wants to delve into DEP provisioning. Sites such as Hotmail, Yahoo! and Google all allow next-of-kin access to the deceased party’s information upon presentation of proof of death and proof of relationship, but a process needs to exist to manage all such related activities. Such a process can be based on a solid foundation of privacy legislation but, from the subject’s perspective, it must be consistent with existing best practices for password management and profile maintenance.

It is important to remember that information represents the building blocks of our identity and beyond the proper disposal of our data-based estate resides the very real threat of identity theft. That threat is real and has been for years. Husnain Kazmi is Vice President for Bank of America in Southern California. Kazmi says that in 2004 alone, some 400,000 checking accounts were reportedly opened in the US and millions of dollars in car loans were approved in the names of deceased individuals. This particularly effective type of identity theft is called ‘ghosting’ and most often occurs as a result of orphaned data being harvested by IT-savvy criminals looking to profit.

Governments need to step in and proactively install legislation that will protect citizens. Provinces in Canada, for example, are taking steps to establish privacy legislation around medical records. Many in the health care system view the legislation as crucial to the successful implementation of the Pan-Canadian Electronic Health Record (EHR) system under development across the country.

Following best practices is vital, but not enough. While the discussion is rather morbid, we must encourage clients and loved ones to exercise common sense when writing obituaries and safeguarding death certificates. Donald Kerr, Deputy Director of National Intelligence in America, is quoted as stating the following on the Office of the Director of Naval Intelligence website, “Too often, privacy has been equated with anonymity; and it is an idea that is deeply rooted in American culture… but in our interconnected and wireless world, anonymity – or the appearance of anonymity – is quickly becoming a thing of the past… we need to move beyond the construct that equates anonymity with privacy and focus more on how we can protect essential privacy in this interconnected environment. Protecting anonymity isn’t a fight that can be won. Anyone that’s typed in their name on Google understands that.”

We may all soon be in need of an internet-savvy, privacy aware, digital estate planner.

Identity Theft Safeguard

Justin digital legacy

It is a proud moment for most parents when their son or daughter decides to join the marines and represent their country. This is no different for the family of Justin Ellsworth. Unfortunately the price of being a marine can be life threatening and in November 2004 Justin Ellsworth’s family got to experience a tragedy like no other when their son was reported dead. At the age of 20 their son Justin had been killed in a roadside blast while trying to assist local civilians.

As you could imagine this would be a huge loss for any family accompanied by much anguish. Regrettably the family of Justin Ellsworth would be haunted and reminded every day that their beloved family member was gone. This was mediated with the fact that Yahoo would not release Justin is emails to his family. To protect their users and themselves from being sued Yahoo has made it almost impossible for anyone outside of the account holder to gain access to an email address. So when Justin had passed away his family pleas to get to read his last words were in vain. Yahoo would not budge about their privacy policy.

The family of Justin knew that they had legal ground to collect their fallen family member is emails and decided to take their fights to the legal system. For the next two years the family of Justin and Yahoo battled on and off in court. During proceedings both sides holding on to their stance about what should happen to the emails of the deceased soldier with no settlements looming.

In April 2005, nearly two years after Justin had passed the judge had made a verdict. The judge had decided Yahoo had no legal grounds to hold Justin is emails from their family as they were the next in line to control it. Soon after the judge signed off on papers declaring Justin is email estate be signed off to his family immediately. This is something Yahoo did not try to appeal. Finally Justin is family had access to his emails but, not only did they have access, they had closure.

It just goes to show you that if you want your loved ones to gain access to your digital legacy then you must give them access before you die. Whether you leave your passwords in a will or you share it with someone close to you for safe keeping. Concluding remember, you are ultimately responsible for your digital legacy unless you want to let your family and loved ones fight for control!

What is Digital Estate Planning and Why Do I Need it?

Eradicating Memories – Corporate Responsibility of Digital Legacy

6 year old Jennifer Atkins was just like any other teenager; she liked to use email, faceebook, twitter, tumblr, and blog. She was taking the fullest advantage of the digital age. What set Jennifer apart from other teenage girls was that she was battling a hard war against a disease since she was 12. Jennifer not only discussed her life as a cancer patient – the triumphs, defeats, but also tried to be a normal teenager interacting with friends and family over the internet. The story of Jennifer does not end happily as she passed away in November.

With her passing left her family with much sorrow and anguish, but they tried to move forward and find relief from Jennifer herself. The family had hired a computer expert to use Jennifer’s laptop to find all her passwords so they could relive the life of their family member. Once the computer expert had successfully gotten access to the computer and passwords Jennifer is family began exploring their loved one is life. They found poems, inspirational messages and even some deep and disturbing information. Yet for the family this was more peaceful and a way to never let go of their loved one.
Unfortunately for Jennifer is family the networks that Jennifer had used to communicate and leave the messages they read began to catch wind of what they were doing. Thus beginning the slow process of shutting down Jennifer is accounts, and killing any memories of Jennifer that the family had left.

The issue, sites such as facebook, tumblr, twitter, yahoo, and blog sites had issues with what the family was doing as it went against their terms of services. These sites are very conscious of what new and prospective users might think. If new users thought that these sites could give families access to personal files they may shy away. This might be especially true to people who are estranged from their family. Facebook does give you the option to close accounts down or turn a decease person is page into a memory page (as long as no one logs into the person is account). Yahoo on the other hand will terminate and delete files in their new term user agreement – anyone signing up for yahoo agrees that once dead their account will be deleted.

It is this corporate need to stay protected that caused Jennifer’s family to lose the remaining memories of their daughter. No matter what Jennifer might have wanted, could not matter because the terms of services now days are focused to stop anyone, including families from getting access. Jennifer is family may never getting to know her daughters final thoughts beyond what they had little time to read. This just goes to leave the question, do you have access to your own digital legacy when you sign up for third party sites and are you ready to lose it all and leave nothing for your family if you die? 

Clear rules needed for managing digital afterlife

Update a password list

Why would it be important to be prepared to give away your accounts information? Different emails providers have different policies. Google allows your next of kin to access your correspondence if they produce a proof of death ; Hotmail does the same, and asks the next of kin to show they have power of attorney. YahooMail.. simply erases your mail history.

Hence, it may be easier for everyone to get access to your mails and execute your will concerning the future of these assets.

Along with the usernames, passwords and emails potentially linked to the accounts, be also prepared to write down the security questions. Your loved ones may be or may not be the one knowing ALL of the details contained in the security questions, leading to an easy recovery of the accounts.

However, do not hesitate to segregate your different passwords in separate, password protected, lists, depending on the beneficiary of your goods. You can then store the different lists on a common storage medium (online storage, physical medium, …) and to limit the access to this resource only to your executor. It’s the same as putting different boxes with different locks for different beneficiaries, waiting in a global safe which is only accessible by you and your executor, but where your executor does not own the key to individual boxes.