Charitable digital assets

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Such has the concentration been on the Millennial Generation that the focus has moved away significantly from the most compelling generation, particularly for businesses and charities: the Baby Boomers.

Not just Baby Boomers but, more specifically, Baby Boomer women. Born between 1946 and 1964 this affluent segment wields more spending clout than any other. Many have developed successful careers and made substantial investments during the boom years, and with inheritances from parents and/or husbands, they have become more financially empowered than any other generation of women.

Whilst there might once have been a noticeable digital divide between Millennials and Boomers, that is definitely no longer the case today. Baby Boomers don’t spend vast amounts of time glued to their smartphones or tablets, but they do engage in online communications on a very regular basis. They also download music and films and watch videos online, they use their smartphones as cameras, they purchase goods and services online and they actively search for health information – now the third most popular online activity for all internet users 18 and older.

Yet when it comes to addressing the issue of digital asset protection, the focus, again, has been on the younger generations. Part of the reason for this is the number of children and teenagers who have died leaving their parents with the heartache of trying to access their online accounts.

Baby Boomers too have a digital legacy that is worth protecting. Since Baby Boomers contribute more than 40 percent of all giving, for charities, these digital legacies have the potential for being a source of considerable income. If we take Tim Cooke as an example of generously giving to charities and then extrapolate that out to what his digital assets are probably worth – you can just image how a charity would benefit if he bequeathed them even a fraction of these assets.

Bibic is an ideal example of a charity geared up to benefit from donated digital assets. This may be something few of us think of, yet the value of these untapped assets stretches into billions of pounds.  Now that is something worth considering!

Mind the (digital planning) gap

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The message finally seems to be getting across. Families who have lost siblings may not have to fight quite so hard to get access to their loved ones’ social media accounts when they die.

Facebook has announced the launch of a legacy contact feature that allows users to give permission to someone else (a family member or friend) to manage their account when they pass away and to post a final message or an obituary on their behalf.

Prior to this service, when an account holder died Facebook offered just a basic memorialised account that was viewable but could not be managed by anyone.

It is estimated that more than 10,000 Facebook users die each day. Whilst the announcement of the legacy contact service is good news for the family of the deceased, they will still not be able to access everything in an individual’s account. Furthermore, the service is only available (at present) in the US.

However, it’s a good start and we are seeing other organisations such as Apple, Google and Twitter beginning to recognise the need to provide digital legacy services. But the social media networks can be just a small part of an individual’s digital legacy.

In research undertaken by Saga, a British company with around 3 million customers and focusing on serving the needs of those aged 50 and over, found that 87 percent of Britons have not planned their digital legacy. Almost a year ago the UK Law Society was urging people to leave clear instructions about what should happen to their social media, computer games and other online accounts after their death.

Gary Rycroft, a member of the Law Society Wills and Equity Committee, said people should not assume family members know where to look online and to make details of their digital life absolutely clear. Even if family members have knowledge of an individual;s usernames and passwords for online accounts, accessing these account could be committing a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

Given the rapidly changing volume, nature and ownership of digital assets, it is becoming more widely recognised by lawyers that including these assets in Wills can be difficult and expensive, particularly if regular changes are to be made to the WIll. That’s one of the reasons why Planned Departure is working closely with an increasing number of law firms to efficiently accommodate individuals’ digital legacies.

The challenge of strong encryption

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Such is the ubiquitous use of smartphones, tablets, laptops and other digital gizmos that they have become reflections of our personalities, our interests and our identities. They are as much a part of us as the clothes we wear.

For the majority, the blogosphere and social media networks – LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and others – have become woven into the very fabric of our lives. We have transitioned to a global interactive knowledge economy, our world marked by major upheavals in technological innovations.

Even in countries dominated by authoritarian regimes, social media have given people access to alternative and independent sources of information. Such is the extent of the availability of knowledge that it can bring about fundamental reform. This can be seen no more clearly than the Arab Spring.

Given the conspicuous silence of the Arab media towards the suppression of political dissent, human rights abuses and earlier protest activities, the popular uprisings in the Arab world in 2011 took many in the West by surprise.

But in this knowledge-rich world and with newly developing digital technologies comes surveillance on an unprecedented scope and scale. The social networking services we use so frequently, our digitised address books and messaging applications provide a wealth of detailed knowledge of who we are, where we are and our associates and contacts.

Documents released by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden suggest that the NSA and the UK’s GCHQ have unilaterally sought to compromise the security of private systems and networks—many operated by major US-based technology companies—to gain access to user data and communications.

These revelations have led to global loss of trust in the security and privacy of US-origin technology. As a result, US companies have introduced a number of encryption measures to safeguard users against surveillance overreach. Google and Apple have announced that data stored on their mobile devices would be encrypted by default, with even the company unable to decrypt locally stored data. WhatsApp has introduced end-to-end encryption and Facebook, Microsoft, and Yahoo are also expanding encryption across their services.

In the digital age, strong encryption may be deemed essential for the enjoyment of the right to communicate anonymously and privately. We might applaud the activities of Apple, Google, Facebook and other companies, but give a thought to what could happen to the digital assets of individuals who use the products and services of these companies, particularly when they die.

There has been much written in the media concerning the enormous difficulties parents have faced when trying to retrieve the information and material stored in the social media accounts of their loved ones who have passed away.

Strong encryption only makes the task exceedingly more difficult unless appropriate measures are taken during our living years to ensure that, when we die, the digital material we want our loved ones to inherit will be actioned according to our wishes.

The number of people who have established a digital Will is growing but the speed of technological change is accelerating faster. We have much to do to get the message across to the wider community about the need to ensure a digital legacy is in place while the opportunity to do so exists.

The digital filing cabinet

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What would you rather have: all your files and records stored neatly away in filing cabinets, desk drawers, shelf racks and document boxes, or digitised and stored in a virtual filing cabinet (the Cloud) that can be accessed from anywhere, not just in your office?

Some from the “old school” will prefer the former but most will, no doubt, choose the latter. Online data storage services are rapidly becoming the preferred method for storing important material.

Amongst many other things, the digital era has heralded fast bandwidth, mobile computing and inexpensive and abundant online storage, all of which have radically changed the way we live and work.

Having important files and documents stored on a virtual server means that staff needing to access this material are no longer limited by location. Provided there is an Internet connection they can work from anywhere. It also means that they can share files efficiently with others.

The opponents of online data storage services will argue that the treat of a cyberattack is a major issue when using remote servers. Protagonists, on the other hand, will point out that cybercriminals are a continuous threat to everyone, irrespective of whether firms use inhouse or remote servers. However, since cloud-based organisations will generally have people whose sole focus is data security, this should not be a major issue.

Furthermore, champions of online data storage will also argue that firms that use physical devices to back up their computers put their data at risk. In virtually every case the process is manual.

That said, opponents do have a valid point on one very important issue: digital asset legacy. With hard-copy records, virtually everything is traceable. But that may not be the case with digital assets.

Online subscriptions, for example, may continue to accrue charges if the owner of such subscriptions dies and leaves no record (or no easily accessible record) for others to act on.

Online bank accounts can also be at risk in the event the holder of the account dies or becomes permanently incapacitated. Whilst any funds in the account are unlikely to be lost, the bank could close the online facility on notification of the holder’s death. This could make things very difficult for firms using online banking in the running of the business, particularly where the account was established by one person registering their username and password.

With many of us today having several online accounts with different service providers, accessing and storing data on several devices – laptops, smartphones, tablets etc – our digital trail can be long. With technology advancing faster than the formulation of new laws that address the issue of digital property, these assets may not necessarily comply with the same legal characteristics as physical assets.

A positive step is to ensure proper care is taken over their protection, not by including them in a Will (which can be awkward given, amongst other reasons, the often rapidly changing nature of digital assets) but by developing a specific digital estate plan and registering that plan with a digital estate management organisation.

For those not taking proper care of their digital legacy, Woody Allen’s quip might be highly relevant: “This year I’m a star, but what will I be next year? A black hole?”