Why it’s crucial to protect digital assets

digital assets

By Komal Joshi.

Planned Departure

Baby Boomers and Generation Xers may not be “permanently connected” with their digits firmly glued to a smartphone – as seems the case with the millennium generation – but they are certainly not digital dinosaurs. For sure, social media networks have achieved their amazing growth not by the oldies but by youngsters, but social media makes up just one part of our Internet use.

Younger people certainly spend more time on social media sites than other generations, but the difference is not as great as you might expect. Research suggests that those under the age of 35 spend 3.8 hours a day social networking, whereas those aged 35-49 spend 3 hours per day. Those aged between 50 and 64 spend a “paltry” 2.4 hours. US research suggests that millennials spend their time on social media as a form of “escape” and “free self-expression”, things not required by older generations.

The growth of the Internet

Social media networks are increasingly playing a key role in the lives of most of us. They enable communication with others in ways never before possible. With the tap of just a few keys we can communicate with texts, photos, videos and have live conversations. What a wonderful world we live in!

But just how wonderful is it? The answer to that depends very much on your point of view. Letʼs go back in time just 22 years. On April 30, 1993, the directors at the CERN laboratories in Switzerland, one of Europeʼs largest research facilities, made a statement that would change our world. They declared that the worldwide web technology created by Tim Berners Lee three years earlier would be made freely available to everyone; no fees or licences required. It was a stunning and visionary announcement.

As the worldwide web began to grow, we started to understand the implications of access (or lack of access) to the net. Indeed, significant forums have argued the case for universal access to the powerful information and communication features of the Internet as a basic human right: the right to communicate.

This newfound means to communicate gave rise to the Information Superhighway. In 1998 there were 50 million Internet users. Today, that figure has accelerated to more than 3 billion – a little over 40 percent of the worldʼs population – and we are generating somewhere in the vicinity of 3 exabytes (3 billion gigabytes) of data every day. Staggering numbers!

Who owns all that online data?

Who actually owns this data has become something of a legal minefield but, in essence, it forms part of what we now call our digital assets or digital property. And in this wonderful world we live in, digital property laws have, unfortunately, not kept pace with technological change. So inevitably, much of the data traveling along the Information Highway will be lost.

The term ʻdigital assetsʼ has been receiving considerable media attention, in part because digital death is an expanding area of law attracting comment and interest from a plethora of parties. Much of this interest has stemmed from the mainstream media capitalising on the frenzy surrounding social media sites like Facebook and the deaths of account holders. Parents are demanding access to their deceased childʼs account, while social networks argue the issue of privacy and the Terms and Conditions agreed at the time of opening an account.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. With virtually every aspect of our lives (business and personal) becoming captured and stored in some digital form, how we protect digital assets is rapidly becoming a major issue.

What constitutes a digital asset and its value?

Any property that can be found in a digital format is a digital asset. These include, amongst others: registered domain names (whether active or not), websites, email accounts, online bank accounts, passwords, social media accounts, databases, digital contracts and receipts, Frequent Flyer miles, financial spreadsheets, tax statements, fiat currencies such as Linden dollars and Bitcoins, photos, music; the list is vast. Digital assets can also include electronic representations of tangible personal property.

The digital assets being accumulated by all generations are growing exponentially, to the point that we are almost taking them for granted. Therein lies an enormous risk. In the UK alone, PricewaterhouseCoopers estimates that the value of our digital assets is in the region of £25 billion.

PwCʼs research threw up some interesting findings. Among these, photos of loved ones are top of the list of things we like to store digitally (73 percent) followed by personal emails or other messages (69 percent) and music (57 percent).

Women value their photos more than men (61 percent to 43 percent) and men are more likely than women to choose personal documents and media content – such as films or TV programmes – as the digital assets they would be most keen to get back if lost.

The older generation is more security-savvy and less likely to use the same password (18 percent) for their various accounts and devices than the younger generation (29 percent of 18 to 34 year olds). In a recent study by private banking organisation US Trust, it was reported that, of the wealthiest respondents, forty-six percent regularly change their passwords to protect anything stored electronically.

What happens when we die?

So what happens to all that information when the owner of those usernames and passwords becomes permanently incapacitated or dies? PwC reported that a quarter of consumers said that nobody would be able to access their digital content after their deaths. Thatʼs a huge amount of paid-for, or sentimentally-valuable, digital content lost forever.

In the vast majority of cases, in comparison with physical property, people pay scant regard to the protection of their digital assets. One reasons is that digital property is considered a challenge because it is more dynamic and, in many instances, transitory. Additionally, where there is a written will, people assume that this document will take care of their digital assets.

Sadly, this is not the case. Wills are not an appropriate vehicle for digital assets because of their often rapidly changing nature and ownership. Digital assets may become outdated quickly as the asset disappears or takes a new form. Furthermore, it’s uncertain whether service providers (for example, social media firms, online banking organisations, cloud storage organisations, etc.) will respect the terms of wills to transfer ownership of digital property.

Digital assets need an alternative form of legal protection

The rapidly advancing digital era has given rise to the digital estate planner or digital asset management provider. Firms such as Planned Departure provide a crucial service whereby individuals can log all their digital assets, including usernames and passwords in addition to postmortem instructions. These are then stored securely in a digital vault.

An executor or verifier is named by the asset owner and this person is subsequently given access to the digital property upon satisfactory proof of death or permanent incapacity. The digital executor can then download, delete or provide to beneficiaries digital assets in accordance with the instructions of the decedent.

Why is this type of service preferable to a will? There are many reasons, one of which is that a digital will is significantly easier to modify as and when the asset changes (for example with usernames and passwords) or when new assets are added.

Another, and perhaps one of the most important benefits, is the ability of family and friends to know what to look for and where to find it. Imagine for a moment an individual has her assets stored on a number of remote servers, each with a different username and password. Imagine, again, the nightmare faced by the deceasedʼs loved ones when it comes to sorting out her digital property. With so many hidden trails, what are they to look for and where do they even start?

When these details are stored securely with a digital asset management organisation, this situation doesnʼt occur because everything has been accounted for properly with clear instructions regarding what is to happen to the property.

Technology is advancing so fast that the law on digital assets simply cannot keep up. Your digital assets may have some protection in law but not in the same way as your physical ones. So it pays to find other ways of ensuring your digital assets remain safe.


Komal planned DepartureKomal Joshi is the co-founder of Planned Departure and was previously an IT consultant working with clients such as Tesco, Trafigura, Man Investments, Channel-4 and IBM. Komal graduated from the University of Jodhpur with a Bachelor of Science degree and went on to complete her Masters in Computer Science. Moving to London where she now lives, she obtained her MBA from the London Business School.