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Self-managing our digital identity, digital assets and intellectual property in case of death or incapacity

ObservationsNow a grandfather, I had to revise my will and mandate in case of incapacity. Except that this time, I found out that I must ask my potential agents and testamentary executors to deal with the ubiquity of digital media. That does complicate their task.

Only a few years ago, one could easily find the documents of an incapacitated or deceased person. It was enough to systematically round the various places where the person lived and worked. The nature of the documents generally jumped in the eyes: contracts, invoices, private correspondence, books, recordings, professional documents, etc. In the absence of specific instructions, one could apply certain customs: such as delivering private correspondence items to their authors, distribution of content libraries, records shelves, photo albums or collections to interested close ones; retention of fiscal documents for some six years before destroying them.

Digitalization of assets

As more and more people around me, I hold less and less documents on paper or other macroscopic media. Already, most of my documents are to be found in digital forms: private correspondence, files, invoices, contracts, tax documents, banking and accounting, books, music, photos, work documentation, etc.

These documents are lodged in various devices: computers, external hard drives, servers, memory keys and micro-cards, phones, media players. Many of these devices belong to me, but several others belong to third parties. A document can be found on several devices, some of them may be on the other side of the planet. And a single device can simultaneously hold personal, domestic, professional or public documents.

Access to equipment and reading of materials are often protected by different user names, passwords, encryption keys. Codes that, in principle, should be all distinct and changed regularly. I do not know for you, but in my case the number of these codes grows as the weeks pass.

Digital identities

Like many people, some parts of my social and public life now exist on the web via:

  • social media (such as Tweeter, Google+, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.).
  • audiovisual distribution sites (Photobucket, Flickr, YouTube, Vimeo, Prezi, iTunes, etc.).
  • personal and professional blogs on self-managed or on third party sites (such as Blogger or WordPress);
  • personal and professional websites;
  • personal profiles in the sites or intranets of some organizations I work with;
  • participation to some forums of discussion;
  • personal profiles with bank, stores, pollsters, librairies, and so on.

Intellectual property

Finally, as more and more others, I have published posts, articles, books, and audiovisual contents. What simplifies the task of my future executors or agent is the fact I often gave away most of my copyrights (except authorship) to third parties (such as publishers) or that I have simply allowed the free use. However, for many people these publications are assets that provide some income in the form of royalties or advertising. These can represent some substantial financial wealth for the heirs.

So many actions to take

In case of death or incapacity, our relatives or agents must be able to inform managers of these sites or organizations, or the members of networks. Often it is necessary to close accounts. In other cases, to keep them for a predetermined period or indefinitely after some appropriate update (such as announcing interruption of activity or death). Some sites could require to backup and store content. Others, conversely, to be destroyed. In some cases (like my website and my professional blogs), the content’s continuous presence of on the web should be insure. In practice, that means maintaining hosting, domain name and website or archives all of it on another site.

However, these tasks may well be carried out by very different individuals. The person responsible for closing my financial life is not necessarily one that will close my business records, or one that will take care of my private correspondence or one that will ensure my ultimate online presence. This is because very different skills, knowledge and relationships might be needed.

The timings of these tasks may also differ significantly. In case of incapacity, immediate relaying my professional work and rearrangement of my finances might be in order, but not necessarily disposition of my private correspondence, or the closing of a number of accounts.

Practical issues

So I asked my notary the following questions:

  • Can you tell me how to write generic instructions or refer me to guides on the management of various types of documents and accounts?
  • Can you tell me, especially, how to ensure that, among my agents in case of incapacity or testamentary liquidators, the right designated person has access at the right time only to documents or accounts related to the task as well as to instructions on how to carry it out?

Waiting for responses

My notary admitted to me she did not have answer. Even after consulting her colleagues.

I called the legal information service of the Chambre des notaires du Québec (notaries’ professional corporation). The answering notary found my questions quite relevant and about pressing issues. However, she told me that the corporation had no available guide, checklist, standard clauses for will or mandate in case of incapacity, nor specific training to its members about these issues. Thus, she could not help me either.

I would certainly not wait for the notarial profession to finally make it in the twenty-first century. Obviously, I had to find solutions by myself. I issued around a call for help. Josée Plamondon pointed me to Adele McAlear’s blog Death and Digital Legacy. From the references it provided, I was able to consult several sites and documents. Including the services listed on The Digital Beyond.

From these readings, it appears there are still no complete, perfectly reliable and definitive solutions for dealing with digital assets, digital identity and intellectual property. Many companies offer various online services (online presence registry, after death emails transmission, memorial sites). But the sustainability of these start-ups is far from being assured. Institutions such as professional corporations could provide personal record keeping or ensure continuity when registrars and other services go out of business. However, there is nothing of this kind yet.

Moreover, apart from Archive-It that is mainly intended for public bodies, there are still no sites guaranteeing indefinite retention of online content in updated formats. At best, one can only bet on the survival time of hosting offered by the Google or the WordPress of this world.

Producing one’s own register

Minimally, we can self-produce a document or set of documents to maintain a permanent inventory of locations where are:

  • our digital assets;
  • the components of our digital identity;
  • our electronic accounts for commercial, administrative, financial and other purposes;
  • our intellectual property.

I propose here an inventory outline that, I think, is more comprehensive and effective than what is currently offered by the commercial services I consulted. A simple word processor document can suffice. One has only to systematically include the following information items in some table or index cards format for each of the assets or component of digital identity. Personally, I prefer the index card format since the number of items and length of some entries makes a table too cramped:

  • name of asset or component of digital identity;
  • its location(s) (name and address, if applicable);
  • type of content and purposes (so that the designated person for it can fully understand its value for you and for others, thus know what to do of when instructions become inapplicable or insufficiently clear and precise);
  • the user name and access code to the location, if any;
  • the encryption key, if any;
  • detailed instructions for disposal in case of incapacity, on the one hand, and in case of death, on the other hand, including:
    • conservation delays (take into account contractual and legal requirements);
    • any person to contact at the site and how;
    • any notice to give or publish;
    • names and contact information of other involved people or resources, if any;
    • mode of disposal (destruction, storage, transfer, copy, delivery to beneficiaries);
    • links to the user manual for carrying out instruction, if applicable;
    • the designated person (identified by name or title) to execute these instructions;
    • any other useful information (version and date of update, level of completeness of the inventory, etc.).

Preferably, one would keep the inventory up to date and instructions on an ongoing basis. Precisely, what I started doing in my case. The file for this inventory must be encrypted and stored safely in more than one place. One of these copies should be readily available to you so it is easy to update it as you open or reconfigure accounts or locations. Access keys and encryption should be as robust as possible and with syntaxes that are totally different from any other code you normally use. Never forget that the register is the key ring all of your digital and online life. For safety, I buried, camouflaged and encrypted the keys of my register in a separate document at a separate location that are known, accessible and recognizable by no other but me.

Ideally, in this proposal, the register’s locations and encryption key of should be known only by you. This is because the information about how to access the register in case of death or incapacity will end up in a completely separate document described below.

The production of such an inventory facilitates the storage of tens of different access codes. It also forces us to streamline our digital production and online presences.

We quickly realized that several accounts (e.g., those for our participation in some forums) require no instruction. They can survive indefinitely or disappear with no consequence.

Register’s access document

The document describing host to access the register is a separate document from the register itself. It contains information on:

  • locations where the original and backup copies of the inventory’s register;
  • access keys and encryption of the register;
  • instructions permitting, in particular, to provide access of the right people to the right locations.

This document has the following advantage: it can be changed as needed regardless of the provisions of a will, a mandate in case of incapacity or a business succession plan.

This document will be “sealed” in a paper envelope or in an electronic document that will be secure in one way or another. It will be put in the custody of another trusted person or business (who will never hold the inventory register itself). As for the register itself, the how to access document  should be kept at least two separate safe places because, if you die, its loss could lead, at worst, an irreversible loss of access to inventoried digital assets and accounts, and at best, long processes for the recovery of these accesses.

Will, mandate in case of incapacity, and business succession plan

Given the details contained in the two types of documents described above, one needs only to briefly enter into the will, the mandate in case of incapacity and any other succession plan:

  • if you desire, general guidelines regarding the disposal of you assets, elements of identity and accounts;
  • the existence of your inventory of goods and items of digital identity;
  • the existence of a separate document on how access to the inventory register and the identity of the trusted third party who holds it;
  • the designation of persons responsible for the provision or the indication that they are named in the how to access document, and
  • the conditions authorizing or prohibiting the trusted third party to provide the means of access to the mandated persons.

Until better solutions are available

Pending the development of more reliable, simpler and better integrated services, this proposal allows a low-cost self-management of the disposal of one’s identity and digital assets in case of incapacity or death. It will probably call for improvement. So feel free to share your comments or experiences. I will signals comments from my notary and my close ones as well as my own experience.

Meanwhile, I wish you a happy, successful and long digital life!

Up-dates:

The Chambre des notaires abdicates management of digital identities and assets

The Chambre des notaires corrects its position on the management of digital identities and assets



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