What is digital executive protection: shielding your C-suite from online threats
For cyber criminals, information on executive leaders is more valuable than gold. By leveraging modern technology and sources that offer access to personal details about company leaders, they equip themselves with the tools needed to digitally blackmail C-level, commit identity theft, impersonation, business email compromise (BEC) and other scams, or breach organizational security.
Patrick Hillmann, chief communications officer at the world’s largest crypto exchange, Binance fell victim to this approach. In 2022, scammers made a deepfake of him and used it to trick his contacts into taking meetings. Luckily, no harm was done and the scam was spotted after he received a few thank-you messages from his unsuspecting partners.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go that well for another impersonation victim, a UK energy company’s chief executive who was tricked into wiring about $220,000 US to a supplier because he believed his boss was instructing him to do so.
Cases like this highlight the importance of protecting executive leadership teams, and increasingly their families, from the latest online threats. With their access to company’s most sensitive data and a larger public profile that provides more information to build a credible attack, these individuals are the highest-value targets an organization has.
What is digital executive protection?
Digital executive protection programs extend enterprise security beyond the network and into the personal lives of corporate executives and their families. It proactively addresses physical security threats as well as identity theft, doxxing, blackmail, fraud, impersonation and other criminal attempts, keeping highly visible targets safe from cyberthreats.
Simply put, digital executive protection involves identifying, protecting from, and mitigating executive cybersecurity and privacy risks. This includes private information, personal devices, homes and home networks, as well as access to critical online accounts. Each of these key elements can be exploited by threat actors and used to attack an organization.
This kind of protection is valuable for the following people and their family members:
- Corporate executives. Anyone with the authority to dictate company policy, transmit sensitive data, or handle intellectual property is a valuable target. A successful corporate account takeover might allow cyber criminals to bypass or disable enterprise data security technologies and multi-factor authentication policies.
- High net worth individuals. Anyone who owns or controls valuable assets is a target for scammers and cybercriminals. Accidentally allowing threat actors to gain access to your accounts could lead to significant financial losses, reputational harm, and more.
- Enterprise security professionals. Working in security makes you a target even if you are not a highly visible leader or key decision-maker. Cyber criminals know they can gain access to valuable corporate data by hijacking high-value targets with control over security technologies.
- Celebrities and influencers. Many famous people and their family members are constantly bombarded with phishing and social engineering attacks. Hackers may be interested in stealing money or threatening reputational damage to extort their victims.
Why digital executive protection matters
Hackers know that launching a successful attack against top management and their families can lead to a life-changing payout. That’s why they’re willing to spend time mapping entry points, conducting reconnaissance, and obtaining timely information about target executives’ personal lives and whereabouts.
Threat actors can get this data from any number of sources, including data brokers, social media, dark web and data breaches. The latter has been a persistent story throughout decades. The first major reported instances date back to 2005 and it has only gotten worse since. One of the many examples is the United Kingdom’s elite law firm Allen & Overy, whose clients include some of the world’s biggest and most reputable companies.
When cybercriminals steal data from a top law firm like A&O, they gain access to a wealth of confidential information about their clients. Leveraging that information to extort top executives and famous media personalities is simple. Consider just how much information your lawyer has on you – and what would happen if it got into the wrong hands.
But it’s not just high-profile leaders and celebrities who suffer the consequences of attacks on them. In August 2023, a US school district reported losing more than $6 million to threat actors after they stole the login credentials used by the district’s Chief Operating Officer. Attackers created fake invoices and watched their target pay them out for months. The attack was only detected after a legitimate vendor complained about not being paid.
Don’t large organizations already invest in executive protection?
Most celebrities and executive leadership teams already invest in security details. Executive security services provide a wide range of physical protection solutions to people who are highly visible targets.
However, most of these services focus exclusively on protecting against physical attacks and theft. They’re not willing to assume the legal liabilities that come with the cybersecurity threat landscape.
Physical security and digital security are two entirely separate things. They demand different tools and tactics, and rely on individuals with very different skill sets. Bodyguards and access control tools won’t stop sensitive information from leaking – that is what digital executive protection programs offer.
Digital executive protection threat landscape
The concerning stats below illustrate the extent of the executive security problem.
The expansive online threat landscape include these common threats executives and their families may face:
- Data breaches. These security violations are often a result of a hacker attack or an inside job by current or former employees and other individuals from the circle of partners, friends or acquaintances. Many attackers focus exclusively on gaining access to sensitive information so they can exfiltrate it and hold the victim ransom. This kind of attack may use malware, ransomware, or it may simply be a brazen attempt at extortion.
- DDoS attacks. Some attackers extort their victims by launching Distributed Denial-of-Service (DDoS) attacks, which flood IT systems with useless traffic until they are forced to shut down. The attacker may demand a ransom in exchange for stopping the attack.
- Digital blackmail. If cyber criminals find private information or embarrassing materials about their victims, they may threaten to publish that data unless payment is made. This could be anything from company data to personal information that can cause reputational harm.
- Cyberstalking. Even a threat actor who doesn’t take action against their victim is a liability. Cyber stalkers may have any number of motives, but their activities make victims feel unsafe. This can be emotionally harmful and psychologically exhausting for executives and their families.
- Business email compromise. If attackers gain access to a business email account, they may be able to impersonate an individual executive and wield leadership authority. This kind of identity theft can lead to financial losses, reputational harm, and the breach of company data.
- Deepfake extortion. This threat is similar to digital blackmail, except attackers don’t even need to find real materials they can use against victims. They may simply turn to AI-enhanced technologies to create entirely false images and data and use them to trick unsuspecting people (employees) into paying fake bills, disclosing sensitive company data, or even ruin executives’ reputation by convincing people the materials are genuine.
- Disinformation campaigns. Someone who is equipped with sensitive data about high net worth individuals or executive leadership teams may be able to spread disinformation that increases victims’ exposure to risk. They may compromise victims’ physical protection or cause reputational harm.
Attackers may use a variety of resources to achieve these goals. Depending on their personal experience and technical capabilities, they may use any of the following methods to gain access to confidential systems and data:
- Phishing. Phishing attacks work by tricking victims into giving up personal data, including their login credentials. Attackers use a variety of methods to do this, like sending fake emails that lead people to enter their information into spoofed websites.
- Social engineering. Social engineering uses a more direct form of deception to trick victims. This is where an attacker may impersonate a trusted contact – like a bank manager or a work colleague – and create a scenario that encourages the victim to divulge private information about themselves.
- Credential stuffing. This is a technical hacking method where attackers use automation to test a huge number of stolen login credentials against secured entry points. It works because people commonly re-use passwords across devices and accounts.
- OSINT reconnaissance. Open source intelligence (OSINT) refers to publicly available information about people and organizations. Those looking to harm leadership teams and/or organizations can scrape personal information from a variety of sources, including data brokers, social media platforms, news articles, interviews and more. Whereas an individual executive working for a highly visible company can fix their data exposure by sharing less on social media or TV, data brokers give no such choice as they collect and expose your private details without asking your permission to do so.
Data brokers are a challenge for digital executive protection
Hackers may gain sensitive information and additional context about high value targets by purchasing personal details from data brokers for a small fee. By collecting and selling private data, these sites make it easy for threat actors to find sensitive data points ranging from ideas for password reset questions/answers to street addresses and the names of family members—all of which they can use for social engineering attacks or to dox, impersonate, scam, or stalk executives.
Here are examples of information hackers can buy from most data brokers:
- Full name and address
- Job title
- Email address
- Mobile phone number
- Credit score
- Active online accounts
- Income range
- Unsealed lawsuits and court records
- Political preferences/Voting profile
- Charity and non-profit donations
- Activity in government spending reports
Some online data brokers can even gather deep insight on high-value individuals’ health and legal information based entirely on their online behavior. Extensive histories of personal purchases, interactions with digital ads, and other online behaviors can paint a clear picture of someone’s identity – making executive impersonation and physical threats that much easier to pull off.
Key elements of a digital executive protection program
Protecting executive leadership teams and high net worth individuals from cyberattack requires a multi-layered approach. Executive protection programs must assess the risk profile of each potential target individually and address risk exposure with a custom-tailored response.
Here are some of the most important features security teams should consider when devising a comprehensive executive protection program:
Removing listings on data broker websites
One of the most important things digital executive protection programs can do is prevent hackers from obtaining sensitive information about targets from data brokers and people search websites. Most of them allow people to request that personally identifiable information be taken off the service. However, they do not make the process easy – it often takes several opt out attempts before they finally remove the requested information.
There are hundreds of these websites online at any given moment, so finding and keeping personal data off of all of them is a difficult and time-consuming task, if done on your own. You’ll have to go to each individual website and follow their opt-out procedures, which usually requires sending a manual removal request.
At Onerep, we remove listings from data brokers automatically and use our own True Scan and Verified Removal technology to locate every data broker exposing personal information of an individual and/or their family, and delete data from all of them. A nice bonus – as soon as data broker listings get removed, they also disappear from Google search results for this person’s name.
Coordinating with enterprise security teams
Digital executive protection programs typically focus on the target’s digital life and access to online accounts. They often expand to include immediate family members as well. However, cyber criminals do not distinguish between their victims’ personal and professional lives.
Security professionals must coordinate with one another even when they are responsible for two entirely different domains. Personal security and enterprise security go hand-in-hand when high-ranking executive leaders are involved.
This may require sharing data between different security services and communicating important pieces of information. It may also involve working together when investigating security events and creating proactive incident response playbooks.
Securing the target’s devices, accounts, and communications
Executives and high-net-worth individuals must adhere to very strict security standards to keep their information safe from attackers. This applies to equipment owned by the organization where they work as well as their home network, and extends to their family members – any of these may be targeted by cyber criminals.
In practical terms, this means creating a robust set of security policies for people to follow. This includes policies for accessing the internet and communicating with friends and colleagues. Hackers may spoof known websites and impersonate trusted contacts. If they believe there is money to be made by doing so, they will spend considerable effort in the attempt.
Some of the security tools that digital executive protection programs might use include antivirus software, virtual private networks (VPNs), and encrypted mobile device hard drives. These types of tools increase the security of using mobile devices in public areas and at home.
Proactive online reputation management
Social media and news coverage can also become sources of information that need to be controlled. It’s not always possible to convince journalists or other third-parties to avoid covering the activities of a well-known or highly visible individual. However, that individual does have control over what they do and say online.
Protecting someone from reputational harm can also mean creating processes for approving the information they post on the internet. For example, this could mean hiding location data that hackers might use to conduct scams. If an executive is traveling for business, it may be in their best interest not to publicly announce the trip until after it’s over.
Ongoing cybersecurity training and education
The cybersecurity landscape is constantly changing. Cybersecurity training plays a critical role ensuring targets adhere to best practices when interacting with internet-enabled devices and assets.
Since attackers are just as likely to target friends and family members as executives and high net worth individuals themselves, this training must extend throughout the social environment. Everyone who regularly comes into contact with a potential target should understand the digital and physical risks involved.
Truly comprehensive security training goes beyond best practices and other operational playbooks. It should introduce concepts like the dark web and explain how hackers use the tools and resources at their disposal to launch attacks against high value targets.
Detailed incident response plans for potential cyberattacks
Even having the best prevention-based security solutions in place can’t guarantee safety from cyberattacks. Hackers may still successfully breach important systems or gain access to sensitive data.
It’s vital that security teams know how to respond to these incidents when they happen. A fast, professional incident response scenario can limit the damage associated with a cybersecurity threat and mitigate the risk of future attacks.
This is only possible when executive protection teams build detailed incident response playbooks that provide step-by-step guidance on responding to certain types of attacks. They should cover a variety of scenarios so that the team can operate with flexibility when presented with an unexpected security event.
Finally, executive security teams will need to decide which aspects of their executive protection program can be implemented in-house and which are more effectively handled by specialized vendors. Here at Onerep, we have extensive experience in providing comprehensive privacy protection for entire executive teams by eliminating their personal information exposure on data brokers and people-search sites, thus preventing a whole range of cyber threats from identity theft and other personal attacks on individual executives to company data breaches.
How Onerep helps the C-suite and organizations fight security risks
Onerep provides privacy assessment, restoration and maintenance services to executives and other frequently targeted people. Our service extends both to the individual executive and their immediate family, offering complete protection to all.
Here is what’s included:
Executive exposure assessment
We start by analyzing an executive digital footprint and scanning for personal data exposure across 200 privacy-breaching websites to define critical areas where privacy restoration is needed. This information provides us with the context we need to create a customized policy for protecting that data.
Automated data broker removal
Onerep removes sensitive data from more than 200 data broker sites and business directories. We use both automated and manual workflows to make sure this data is inaccessible for cyber criminals and hackers.
When one of these websites creates a new profile on you, we immediately begin the removal process again. This prevents online data brokers and other websites from temporarily taking down your information before putting it back up. This process continues until we are sure your data has actually been scrubbed entirely.
Monthly and custom removal reporting
We keep executives informed about their privacy status and removal progress via our comprehensive removal reports. When data shows up on a new website, we include it in our report and document the process of taking that information down.
Continuous privacy protection
Onerep provides ongoing support, monthly monitoring and scanning for private information for the entire year. We constantly look for new data points that appear, and take careful consideration of the ones that consistently reappear. When this happens, we may adjust our customized digital executive protection program in response.
White-glove concierge service
This includes unlimited access to an allocated Account Manager and Privacy Expert Team. They are permanently available to answer all security-related questions and address additional concerns.
In addition to the automated removal, our privacy experts analyze Google searches and remove executive information manually whenever such removals are possible.
Digital executive protection is vital to maintaining tight control over cyberattack and data breach risks. Executives and high net worth individuals already invest in physical protection, but often leave themselves exposed online. It’s time to change that – by protecting them, their families and organizations in the digital realm.
Onerep’s solutions for business provide comprehensive protection against cyber threats, supporting the work that enterprise security teams already do to protect business assets.
Need assistance to protect leader(s) of your organization? Contact us to get started.