Perspective

Is your digital footprint a reputational risk?


When Leonardo DiCaprio bought an island off the coast of Belize for $1.75 million (£1.3 million) to create an off-the-grid resort, he understood that privacy is a luxury good in today’s world. This is true both digitally and physically. Not having a digital footprint was the default only 40 years ago. Today, the reverse is true.

High-net-worth and high-profile individuals are increasingly deciding to take how they are presented online into their own hands. Far from just being a vanity project, the information about you online can be used against you in business deals and security attacks. There are implications for privacy and your reputation too.

“You would never walk into a real-world meeting poorly attired,” says Andrew Wessels, founder and CEO of The Marque, a digital-profile management company based in Mayfair, London. He argues that almost every first impression is now made online. The Marque supports top executives in private wealth and private equity firms, philanthropists and athletes. 

The Marque is one company in a growing industry that helps individuals to have control over the stories being told about them in the digital sphere. “You are not promoting yourself. You are controlling the message. There is a real difference,” Andrew adds.

While there are plenty of elements of your digital footprint that you can control, such as limiting social media accounts and selling your home off-market, there are also elements that are harder to regulate, such as what others share about you, data leaks ending up on the dark web and other security attacks.

Tackling negative press

Some people find one story unfairly dominates a Google search of their name. Some people find it limits their career if someone with the same name as them is reported as having criminal convictions in a Google search. Other people find that there is contradicting information about them online. And, “some people are simply sick of people talking about a deal they did ten years ago,” Andrew says. All of these issues may encourage someone to reach out for third-party support.

There are several ways that an undesirable digital profile on Google can be combated. This may include having up-to-date social media pages and biographies, owning relevant websites and asking a media company to take down a negative article.

While negotiating with content producers to remove defamatory, unfair or incorrect content is effective in many situations, it does not always have the desired effect. Scott Stewart is Vice President of Intelligence at TorchStone Global, a risk mitigation and security firm. He explains that, depending on where something is posted, “by objecting to content, you can bring more attention to it, so you can create a crisis by over-reacting”. Therefore, owning digital assets that appear on page one in a Google search can be more effective, particularly considering that 75% of people will never scroll past the first page on a Google search. This includes buying domain names as well as creating a site to promote your digital profile.

Note that this is not a quick fix in response to a crisis. It can take six months to see results on Google’s first page. “If there are 10 negative stories about you on the first page of a Google search, there is no magic wand to wipe it away,” says Andrew. Both Scott and Andrew recommend seeking support before a crisis arises. If you already own a handful of sites on the first page of a Google search, your side of the story can be presented alongside or above any negative press as soon as it arises.

Of course, there is a risk of going too far and making it look like you’re hiding something. “If you are involved in a business that went bankrupt and it is not your fault – own it. No one is perfect,” recommends Andrew. “Equally, if you have been charged with insider trader or similar, we won’t work with you. You need to speak to a lawyer,” he adds.

The vast majority of the internet is not on Google

The dark web and deep web should not be underestimated. What you see on Google or the surface web accounts for only about 1-5% of the internet. The remaining 95-99% is made up of the deep web and the dark web.

The deep web refers to anything that is not indexed and, therefore, not searchable. This includes content behind a paywall or needing login details and content that has been blocked from being indexed, such as a company database or medical records.

The dark web is only about 0.1% of the deep web. It is mainly used for anonymisation. This can include criminal activity but is also used by political whistleblowers, activists, and journalists. WikiLeaks is a well-known example of a dark website.

Ill-gotten personal data can be sold on the dark web, from house plans to personal phone numbers, credit cards to email addresses. Anyone from a commercial competitor to a burglar could use this information against you.

Social media

In some instances, your own pages can be a bigger risk than other people’s. “One of our client’s Twitter account had been hacked. She had not realised because she didn’t use her account anymore,” says Andrew. “The hacker had written fairly explicit things about Brad Pitt. Of course, she deleted it as soon as we spoke to her about it,” he adds.

While this kind of cyberattack has relatively minor consequences, the potential dangers of a security breach are only too familiar. “When working with a family, we will always do a public profile assessment. This helps us to understand what’s out there on the internet – whether it’s on Google, the dark web or the deep web,” explains Scott.

The company can then see what a person with ill-intent could discover about the client and what is not available too. What critical pieces of info would a hostile person need if they wanted to do something?

Reputational risks created by you and your family

The online behaviour of clients themselves and their families presents a separate set of challenges for those looking to clean up their digital profiles. Take an audit that The Marque carried out for a potential client and CEO as an example. “We found he was following 15 adult accounts on Twitter,” says Andrew. “When we raised this with him as a reputational issue, he didn’t understand how we could see who he was following. He thought it was private. He never became a client, I think mainly because he was so embarrassed,” Andrew adds.

In the unforgiving age of “cancel culture”, many have lost out on career opportunities because of past social media posts. One of The Marque’s clients recently lost out on a $100 million (£76 million) investment due to the family’s wider social media activity. “The investor loved our client, but said their family was a reputational risk so didn’t do the deal,” Andrew explains. “Another client stepped down from four boards following a partner’s bigoted Tweets,” says Andrew. “We are seeing this type of issue more and more.”

Scott says: “Everyone has the ‘crazy aunt’ who posts everything on Facebook including sensitive data like their birthdays.” TorchStone will point out relatives that are a potential risk to a client, giving recommendations on how to address the issues.

The way that the internet archives information means that it can be very difficult to make something permanently go away. “That’s a big challenge right now,” says Scott. “Once it is online, it is very difficult to make it disappear.” This means that prevention is always better than a cure.

Solutions often lie in education around the risks and family discussions. Some families have come together across generations, agreeing on the purpose of their wealth, what they would like their family to be known for and how this translates into behaviour in the digital world.

This article is issued by Cazenove Capital which is part of the Schroders Group and a trading name of Schroder & Co. Limited, 1 London Wall Place, London EC2Y 5AU. Authorised by the Prudential Regulation Authority and regulated by the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority. 

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