This briefing note is only intended as a general statement of the law and no action should be taken in reliance on it without specific legal advice.

Lifting the Shroud of Anonymity – Protecting Privacy and Reputation Online
Emma Woollcott
03 September 2014

Lifting the Shroud of Anonymity – Protecting Privacy and Reputation Online

Social media and mobile technology provide a myriad of opportunities for positive engagement with numerous audiences. But when they are used maliciously and anonymously, the effect can be extremely damaging and highly disturbing. Blackmail, harassment and threats to reveal private information online, potentially to a global audience, are more distressing when perpetrated by those who try to hide their identities, whether behind hoax Twitter accounts, fake email addresses, or unregistered mobile phones. Malicious and intrusive publications online can cause significant and lasting reputational damage, as images and information dissemination across various platforms can prove almost impossible to completely remove.

Recent media reports about hacked nude images of celebrities leaked online by anonymous publishers have ignited a debate about the general public's appetite for unfettered access to sensitive information. This recent example highlights a cultural shift whereby the public increasingly demands more intrusive and intimate information about those in positions of power or celebrity. The demand is fed by paparazzi, glossy magazines and tabloid newspapers, and compounded by hackers, bloggers and online publishers, many of whom seek to gain financially from others' embarrassment and avoid the consequences of their actions by remaining anonymous.

Threatened or actual malicious publications are by no means limited to celebrities, and affect individuals and businesses across all industries. The private and financial affairs of wealthy individuals, entrepreneurs and well-known companies are ripe for public discussion and criticism, particularly if touching on the controversy of the day, be it political donations or off-shore tax structuring. The presumption that what is published is true, no matter what the source, means that negative publications can be devastating; wreaking havoc on personal and business relationships, profitability and investment opportunities.

The modern challenge is how to keep private matters truly private, how to react when disclosure is threatened or a breach occurs, and how to ensure those who cause the breach are held properly accountable. Time is often limited in our social media world, and strategic reactions must be considered and planned for, preferably in advance of any crisis happening.

* Keep confidential cards close to your chest:

Whether you are a private individual or business, or more well-known and open, it is essential to heighten efforts to keep truly sensitive and confidential information safe. This may include encrypting email and securing remote access systems, strengthening privacy settings on social media accounts, ensuring confidentiality terms in employee and other contracts, and regularly 'stress testing' areas vulnerable to abuse.

* Monitor and control your public profile:

Many individuals and corporates shy away from publicity, preferring to keep a low profile. Careless public connections or rash communications with the media or antagonists may undermine such attempts however, and can leave you exposed if negative publicity occurs. Having a controlled public presence, for example by way of an informative and moderated website, is a proactive step that can help manage public perception and dilute the impact of a reputational attack.

* Prepare for a crisis:

Being unprepared in the face of attack can result in panic, delays and mistakes which will invariably escalate and exacerbate the damage caused. Time spent honestly appraising potential vulnerabilities, and planning a crisis strategy and crisis team ahead of time, pays dividends. Working through a reputation crisis simulation exercise, such as Mishcon Spotlight, will allow mistakes to be made in private, and highlight where improvements may be made before a reputational attack strikes.

* Trace and bring perpetrators to account:

Anonymous publishers may believe that their activities can go undetected, but they invariably leave evidence as to their identity online. Through strategic and forensic investigations, engagement with social media hosts and targeted disclosure applications against third parties, it is possible to piece together relevant evidence and track down aggressors so that they may be held accountable for their actions.

Any party who values their privacy and public reputation must prepare carefully and thoroughly to pre-empt and avoid damaging reputational attacks, and ensure that they have the right team in place to deal with anonymous threats or public exposure at times of crisis.

For more information, please contact Emma Woollcott, Associate, Reputation Protection and Alexandra Whiston-Dew, Solicitor.