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“Every individual could be the victim of his or her own digital footprint...even seemingly harmless information can be used by hostile third parties to expose private activity, attack reputations, and even do serious harm.”Digitalis Co-authored this White Paper with Cavendish Family Office
Managing vulnerabilities in your digital footprint 2017 White Paper
As the world moves increasingly online, most of our daily lives are recorded on some sort of electronic record, but what's worse is that what happens online is beyond our control, in the hands of social media, search engines and other much less visible web platforms.
Whilst it's fair to say that every individual could be the victim of his or her own digital footprint, it is those more publicly visible people who are most at risk - from High Net Worth Individuals (HNWIs), their families and businesses through to well-defined, high-risk groups such as those connected to politics. For such groups, even seemingly harmless information can be misinterpreted, spun and used by hostile third parties to expose private activity, attack reputations, and even do serious harm.
Maintaining a low profile is often important to influential figures, especially when it comes to ensuring the protection of their families. However, counterintuitively, it is the digital space which remains overlooked and lacks risk assessment by those who desire confidentiality and privacy.
The "Second Layer" and the Deep Web as a source of harmful information
Known elements of a digital profile exist in the open for any unauthorised party to view indiscriminately. News stories, profile pieces and social media accounts offer a wealth of data that may reveal an individual's interests, whereabouts and extended social circle.
Far more data may be gleaned, though, about an individual by mining the footprints of the "Second Layer". The social media accounts of those close to a HNWI often unwittingly divulge sensitive information, even where the target individuals themselves refrain from social media activity. Family members are often the prime information targets of hostile third parties. It can take as little as four hours to assemble a family tree via freely available public records online and then to track down and monitor the digital activities of this "inner circle".
Investigative journalists are also increasingly turning to new tech-powered tools to source stories in a time-efficient manner. The news site Vocativ and The Press Association’s RADAR project (Reporters and Data and Robots) use Artificial Intelligence to trawl the deep web for the information not returned readily by search engines. Documents like spreadsheets, comment chains in forums and chat rooms and even information from company databases often exist online without being visible in a search engine like Google. In addition, new material is published online every second and old, paper archives are being digitised every day.
The younger generation of those families subject to greater public attention are increasingly coming under fire for the material posted online. Sites like the Daily Mail publish regular roundups shaming the "Rich Kids of Instagram". In some cases, affluent people also are public figures whose children can be easily tracked on Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook and other online platforms. Even if the children are highly responsible, they may find themselves with others who are not.
As well as drawing negative press attention, some posts expose information which can pose physical risks too and can be used to track down the individuals themselves; such as license plate numbers and hotel locations.
It is therefore unsurprising that around 40% of online information related to a person or a firm is unknown to the subject themselves.
It is notoriously difficult to remove anything permanently from the internet, and even a trace of an unfavourable story on the deep web can potentially be discovered by journalists, hostile business rivals, and hackers. It is critical to be aware of what is being circulated about an individual, their business and family to mitigate against wider reputational threats.
Cyber means Human
The phrase "sophisticated cyber-attack" has become commonplace to describe many high-profile hacks but the reality is that most attacks - 95 percent according to CyberSmart - are not "sophisticated" at all. These attacks succeed simply because humans are not as vigilant as they could be.
Information online can be abused in a huge variety of ways. It can be used to guess passwords, to identify and access sensitive information which might be encrypted for the purposes of ransom, or to create convincing fake emails, a practice known as phishing which can be used to access a victim's machine. Therefore, the gateway to cyber-attacks often starts with social engineering and prey on human vulnerability; bespoke, highly-researched phishing emails might link to the family's holiday photos from St Lucia on Instagram or refer to the amount raised from the charity triathlon performance on a nephew's JustGiving website.
Social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have made it easy for cyber criminals to track and target high net worth individuals and their family members. Cyber extortionists can, for example, demand money to remove morphed photos from social media. Similarly, several high-profile yacht-related cyber-crimes in recent months come to show that hacking is not necessary to extort money from wealthy yacht owners if the yacht crew post photos on social media. Drones and long-lens photographers can be deployed to try and take compromising photos of the owners and their often well-known guests.
This deliberately shared, and often undiscovered online material is readily available to hostile third-parties. Being mindful of it, and even better, controlling it, can mitigate reputational, security and physical threats in future.
Reputational consequences of a vulnerable digital footprint
"Boulevard" media outlets are experts in spotting the headline-grabbing issue for a HNWI or individual connected to politics by looking at his/her digital footprint. "Juicy" material from leaked papers reporting on a decades-old business transaction connected to records of legal disputes, or even innocent references to spending on family birthdays, can easily make for a sensationalist page one newspaper story.
In this digital age, such articles are not just headlines, they can become prominent features of an individual's first page results in search engines - a person's digital business card. Such content can have an especially enduring effect, appearing on the digital profiles of spouses, siblings and children due to a shared family name.
An online reputation crisis of this nature can be disproportionately influential. According to a 2017 Reuters Institute and YouGov report, social media and search remain the most important gateways to online content. Furthermore, negative content is naturally more visible online. There is an increased recognition that search algorithms are rarely neutral, and are not equipped to deal with the nuances and complexities of our modern world.
At the same time, many HNWIs naturally place a high value on privacy, which can result in a practically non-existent digital footprint. However, the lack of owned, controlled content on the digital profile of any family member can actually exacerbate the effect of damaging news, as there is no material to counter the impression made by a negative story should one arise.
The lack of an online presence is starting to be viewed with suspicion by some. As the world increasingly turns online for information, digital silence can be obstructive in conducting effective due diligence or establishing a reputation. The days of being digitally invisible are over.
How to mitigate digital risks
There are several steps that can be taken in managing an appropriate digital profile that addresses the needs of HNWIs and similar high-risk groups.
- It is crucial to identify, assess and mitigate the potential impact of content that already exists online. Often, information found on even non-credible platforms can have a significantly detrimental impact on the view of those conducting financial due diligence or in-depth searches ahead of engaging in a transaction. A full digital audit can reveal not only obvious reputational threats but also less openly apparent issues.
- Create appropriate online assets such as official family websites and professional social media accounts (if appropriate and carefully-managed) to create a strong digital footprint while retaining (or controlling) privacy.
- Social media is similarly important to review in order to address whether private information is openly accessible on an individual's accounts or the accounts of those they have connected to. This includes accounts that are no longer in use but may still be authorised to share information.
- It is also highly advisable to train the younger generation of wealthy families on how to use social media safely and effectively in order to prevent leaks that jeopardise the family's reputation or their own safety.
These are just some of the ways in which you can protect yourself, but for a more in-depth or bespoke arrangement, we would be delighted to work in conjunction with Digitalis Reputation, who can advise on steps to detect existing threats and instruct on a future digital strategy to construct a cohesive and appropriate narrative.
Cavendish Family Office is an independent, creative, and solutions based Multi Family Office in Mayfair, London.