Whether the trial of Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson reveals that they were involved in phone hacking or not, the recent public scrutiny of the press has highlighted the amount of detailed information to which a talented journalist has access without resorting to illegal practices. Many journalists are assisted by careless oversights by those whose information is sought.
There are a number of simple steps that high profile individuals (and for these purposes, the media typically view high net worth individuals as high profile) can, and should, take to keep personal confidential information private.
Individuals should be aware of, and make careful choices regarding, the information released into the public domain, such as that on the Electoral Roll. A great deal of privacy can be needlessly lost by failing to take simple steps, like ensuring residential addresses are not registered as service addresses at Companies House and limiting information submitted on planning applications to the minimum and/or using business contact details where permitted.
In many countries (including the UK), wills are published when probate is granted, often thrusting heirs and details of their inheritance into the public domain. The effects can be mitigated by using trusts in wills and the deceased leaving a private letter of wishes describing how each of the heirs should benefit. This can be particularly important if the deceased’s wishes could attract unjust criticism.
For example,where a parent made significant lifetime gifts to one child (for example, to purchase a house, fund a business or pay school fees) and therefore favours the other child in his/her will. Viewed in isolation, an onlooker might comment that the deceased preferred the child who benefits the most, causing unnecessary distress in an already emotionally charged situation.
Owners of real estate are registered at the Land Registry, so where properties are owned through corporate entities like companies or LLPs, the entity’s details are registered instead. Caution is needed because using corporate structures can have tax implications, which may be advantageous or not depending on the specific circumstances, but the use of a nominee entity is tax neutral – the nominee is ‘transparent’ – taxes apply as if the individual owned the property personally.
When wealth is managed through structures, it is tempting to choose entity and project names which are relevant to the family. It would not take journalists long to join the dots if, for example, a high profile individual ultimately owns a series of companies which feature the Christian names of each of his or her children.
And if this information reaches the media, it is often an interesting snippet of information which adds a human angle to attract readers’ attention: While many will have already forgotten the details of the trial and acquittal of Harry Redknapp, most will remember the name of his bulldog, Rosie. It is often hard to conjure up an entirely unconnected name for a live project, so prepare a list of bland, unconnected words in advance and pick names from the list in order.
Consider carefully the places where confidential information is written down: electronic records are virtually impossible to delete permanently yet easily disseminated, and the newspapers are littered with horror stories of the physical copies of information (such as documents or CDs) being left on a train or similar. As well as the implications for the confidential information, this can have serious data protection implications if those confidential records also contain personal data relating to others. Shred paper copies of confidential information if they are no longer needed.
Cyber security merits a thesis in its own right, but high profile individuals must use and maintain robust cyber protection, such as firewalls and anti-virus software. Set appropriate passwords and access rights when using online resources and social media, and refrain from publishing or posting too much personal information. Consider the potential immediate impact, but remember also that the information might resurface if uncovered by search engines and reviewed years into the future, often in a different context.
When dealing with others, such as advisors or suppliers, don’t be afraid to question them on the systems and processes they have in place to guarantee information security. Make it an essential element of any pitch document for the provision of services. If the terms of your retainers don’t cover these issues, insist that they should and in some cases, it may be prudent to insist on full confidentiality agreements.
High profile individuals are, by definition, difficult to keep out of the limelight. There is no reason why the same should be said of their confidential information.
Corinne Staves works at boutique private wealth law firm Maurice Turnor Gardner LLP (Corinne.Staves@mtgllp.com)