Business Technology

Data hacks and online blackmail: How to safeguard your business

4 min read

24 March 2017

Reports last week that data hacks grew by more than 600 per cent in 2016 have raised concerns with individuals and businesses alike. The threats posed by such developments are to be expected with the increase in the pervasiveness and inclusivity of technology in our daily lives.

Countless businesses, and people, rely on cloud accounts to safely store passwords, pictures and videos, as well as huge amounts of corporate information. This new vulnerability has been exposed with the continued growth of blackmail incidents and data hacks. But what can be done about it?

The threats of data hacks become more personal when you consider the importance of online reputation today, and the instability in building and maintaining such an entity. As such, the monetary lure for blackmailers has risen and the temptation to leak damaging content to one of more online sources is increasing. These online sources are notoriously hard to track down to a single user, and once it catches on, it can spread like wildfire. Thus it is crucial to act immediately.

Quite the opposite of typical blackmail, where information is extracted and exposed, companies now face having data locked up by ransomware, making it completely inaccessible and therefore useless. Such data hacks use ransomware to hold the target hostage for data at great expense. In fact, the FBI have estimated that in the first three months of 2016 alone, cyber criminals extorted $209m from US businesses. This trend continued throughout the year, and has become prevalent in the UK as well.

Britain is taking the issue very seriously; the National Crime Agency has brought on board agencies from 12 other countries to form a united front against data hackers. Together they aim to publish decryption tools for victims whose data has been locked in by hackers.

The risk of such attacks can be lowered by keeping software up to date and training staff on cyber hygiene. The latter could be particularly important as a large proportion of the phishing attacks recorded in 2016 came through malware methods, such as remote access Trojans. However, the risk remains present. Whether you are facing traditional blackmail or ransomware, should an attack occur you must act quickly to bring in professionals to manage the crisis. Media and digital experts within a PR firm should be strongly considered as part of your fight back team.

If a data hack on your business does occur, the first piece of advice would be not to panic. If you have a professional media team supporting you, they will be able to work across multiple disciplines to form a plan of attack to deal with the threat of publication and the spread of damaging material. Identifying the source of any threat is crucial to developing a hard-hitting action plan to halt the blackmail attempt in its tracks. However, there are often additional challenges to overcome.

Blackmailers are devious and usually driven by financial gain. They often use blogs outside of the UK, where laws on materials are more relaxed and therefore are harder to engage. This is where experts can utilise their journalistic expertise to coordinate a damage control strategy, or the total removal of offending material from the culprit sites.

Not having a strategy and failing to act quickly is where most people go needlessly wrong. It is important to call in a professional as soon as the threat emerges.

Neil McLeod is head of strategic communications at leading London reputation management firm PHA Media

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