The increase in screen time during the COVID-19 pandemic has been well-documented, with people especially turning to social media to keep connected, entertained and informed.
For high-net-worth individuals, however, chatting and posting online presents more than a digital distraction. Oversharing on social networks can expose entire families to embarrassment and reputational harm. It can even raise the risk of theft, kidnapping and other criminal activities.
Experts say wealthy families should encourage good online habits in their younger members – as well as older ones who are new to social networks – and take precautions to prevent harm.
One thing to remember is that whatever you post “is pretty much there forever,” says Raymond Vankrimpen, a partner at Richter Family Office in Toronto. He has practiced in the area of information security and privacy for 20 years and has seen an increase in vulnerability to attacks along with the increasing use of online networks. “We’re always playing catch-up in the area of security.”
A Statistics Canada survey last autumn found that four in 10 respondents have been spending more time on social media given lockdowns and quarantines, with an increase of 57 per cent in those aged 15 to 34. It also found that 42 per cent of people had experienced at least one cyber-security incident since the beginning of the pandemic, including phishing attacks, malware, fraud and hacked accounts.
‘Something to hide’
Beyond the threat of criminal activity, today’s “cancel culture” has shown that seemingly innocuous postings deep in the past can bring trouble to users given new sensitivities, Vankrimpen says. “They lose jobs, and their reputations get tarnished, because at the time when they did those things, the culture was different.”
People have an “inherent trust” that they can control the information they put online, especially if they limit those who can view it, he says. “But there’s nothing stopping someone from taking a screenshot or snapshot and keeping it somewhere.”
Some people claim they aren’t fussed about privacy, “but you have nothing to hide until you’ve got something to hide,” he says.
You can do what you do in your own little bubble, but you’re connected to everyone else.
Others have a false sense of security. When a colleague claimed he was very careful on social media, it took Vankrimpen just 20 minutes to discover details such as where he’d spent the previous weekend.
“He was shocked. … His family was on social media and were not practicing the same level of privacy he was,” Vankrimpen says. “You can do what you do in your own little bubble, but you’re connected to everyone else.”
There are badly intentioned people who want to manipulate data, steal identity, harass, embarrass and attack the vulnerable.Constantine Karbaliotis, nNovation LLP
Family offices are seeing greater interest among ultra-high-net-worth clients in their online identities. Vulnerability assessments and penetration testing can show the extent of an entire family’s digital footprint and how to protect it.
Constantine Karbaliotis, counsel at nNovation LLP, a Toronto law firm focused on privacy and data protection, says people should not “blindly share too much” on social media, such as where they were born and the names of pets, which is the information they often use for answers to security questions.
He points out that a popular bumper sticker among members of the International Association of Privacy Professionals reads: “Someone Hacked My Password. Now I Have to Rename My Dog.”
Karbaliotis advises wealthy people to “think of your data as money.” They should be careful what they send on email and remove the geo-tagging on photos they post, which discloses their location. They should also consider alternate social media platforms that are more privacy-friendly.
“We all want to play on the internet, it’s an amazing invention. We want to shop, we want to interact, we want to be able to enjoy these things,” Karbaliotis says. “But there are badly intentioned people who want to manipulate data, steal identity, harass, embarrass and attack the vulnerable. If we’re not aware of that, we’re sleepwalking into risk.”
Practicing good online hygiene includes using tools to audit the information about you on social networks, he says, and turning on available privacy controls.
Privacy settings on social media should be proactively reviewed and managed, says Edouard Thijssen, co-founder and CEO of Trusted Family, a United Kingdom-based technology platform for communication and information sharing for family businesses and offices.
In most cases, an app’s default settings leave photos, contact lists and recent activity visible, “and people with wrong intentions can get a lot of information from that,” Thijssen says. Details such as the times and location of where you post could reveal personal habits that you prefer to keep private.
He urges wealthy families to meet with experts to discuss their digital footprints, understand the risks of social media and see how the actions of one family member can affect others.
Establishing policies and guidelines up front is critical, Thijssen says. “Most people only start thinking about it when something happens,” he says. “If you have awareness, you can make a lot of choices that will not put you at too much risk.”
Vankrimpen is concerned about new developments, such as the posting of “deep fakes,” video or audio that is falsified to show people doing or saying compromising things. In the past, such stunts required movie-production capabilities, “but now you can pretty much do it on your iPhone,” he says, noting that the only way to discern a fake may be through a forensic specialist.
Businesses and individuals who want to protect themselves can consult services such as CyberSecure Canada, a federal program that helps small and medium-sized businesses protect themselves from cyber-attacks, Vankrimpen says. He advises clients to keep posts “as benign as possible,” to protect their accounts with two-factor authentication and to perhaps consider using a burner phone – a cheap, prepaid, disposable model – when signing up for services where their personal identification could be compromised.
“This is going to be a massive challenge for society going forward,” Vankrimpen adds.