What the Kim Kardashian Paris heist teaches us about digital privacy

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The digital revolution has ushered in an age of unprecedented openness — as well as a raft of new threats to our security, writes Dr Laura Toogood.

Few will have missed the news coverage relating to US reality TV star Kim Kardashian West when she was robbed at gunpoint at a luxury residence in Paris in October. Thieves are said to have stolen jewellery worth in excess of £5.2 million.

The incident was a sharp reminder of the heightened physical security threat to owners of valuable items. While Kardashian West’s bodyguard was criticised due to his absence, the star’s online behaviour was also the subject of scrutiny. Many condemned her for flaunting some of her lavish jewels on Instagram prior to the raid, in particular a ring her husband had given her.

Social media has been a crucial tool for Kardashian West — she has built her fan base almost exclusively as a result of sharing her life on television and then sharing even more personal insights online. Perhaps she will now become more cautious about exposing details of her private life.

In a world where data and information are so freely available, the security threat is no longer entirely physical and there are new vulnerabilities as a result of the online landscape. Criminals can leverage the digital backdrop by anonymously stalking their victim, gathering crucial information, harvesting data and using publicly available material to assist with their plan of attack.

Information posted on the internet can pose a significant risk. Images or social media status updates that reveal location details, precious items and a network of friends can make an individual incredibly vulnerable.

However, it’s not just behaviour patterns that create a digital trail — an online presence is also unavoidable thanks to search engines, social media and other platforms that host third-party content, which defines the perception of individuals.

It has become impossible to withdraw completely from this world and to remove all trace of oneself from the internet. This is mainly because you do not have control over your information trail. Although choosing to abstain from the likes of Instagram may seem a logical step when building a privacy barrier, it does not guarantee complete anonymity. Someone else may mention you by name or upload photographs from a group holiday, and you can’t control this person’s security settings. The biggest threats often come from the inner circle, and this can be a challenging topic to broach if people do not value privacy in the same way.

Over the past ten years, the middle generation has acted as the test case for the digital revolution. They have boldly embraced developments in technology, welcomed the sharing culture and, crucially, exhibited naivety (through no fault of their own) about the risks when treading this unknown territory. Furthermore, the concept of privacy has changed. Much more information is forced into the public domain and the dynamics of social networks have altered. Thanks to Facebook and LinkedIn, acquaintances have become stronger connections and often permanent ties.

The generation issue is particularly interesting from a privacy perspective. I often encounter situations where there’s a conflicting approach to social media use and privacy, particularly within a family that spans more than one generation. The topic should be debated and it’s essential to gain knowledge about the tools, understand the pitfalls, and, above all, be aware of your surroundings by evaluating the digital trail that’s left behind.

Another key issue facing individuals and reputation managers in the digital age is the changing dynamics of the media. The media no longer acts as the sole gatekeeper of news and is not the only dominating force when it comes to defining reputation. That said, press coverage has become more powerful in some ways. Search engines are now a popular gateway to information and therefore the lifespan of news has become more relevant. With Wikipedia giving authority to newspaper sources, a piece of history can remain a prominent part of the online profile.

We live in a challenging world where, as well as physical security being compromised by material posted online, such information can also be used by hackers to enable sophisticated spear phishing attacks.

It is imperative to manage and monitor the online profile, with a thorough understanding of the technical complexities presented by the internet. The digital age presents us with a malleable landscape and a proactive approach is crucial for managing the reputation, privacy and security risks that we face in this ever-changing environment.

Dr Laura Toogood’s new book, The Death of Privacy: Fear and Security in the Digital Age, will be published in 2017 by I B Tauris