Lauren Barr, Head of Research in Intelligence & Investigations, and Sarah Reynolds, Professional Development Lawyer, explore the hidden privacy, reputation and security risks that free online tools and platforms pose to family offices, small businesses and prominent individuals.
The internet is awash with free tools and platforms that can be utilised for everything from text translation to file conversion; document sharing to photo editing. As with anything that is free, however, the fact remains that often, if you’re not paying – then you’re the product.
For high-profile individuals and family offices – who may hold large amounts of sensitive data – many of these free online tools pose a significant risk to privacy, security and reputation. What may seem a harmless convenience could in fact mean sharing your personal information with the world.
We take a look at the hidden risks of these online tools – and how family offices and small businesses can stay on top of them.
File conversion and sharing sites
Family offices, small businesses and prominent individuals often hold a significant quantity of confidential data pertaining to family/organisational wealth, assets, private information, travel arrangements and security procedures. This data may live in documents that are more easily shared in a PDF format or may be too large for an email attachment.
To solve their technical problem, many individuals will turn to one of the many easily available free online tools which allow users to convert documents to PDF or share files to third parties via a link. Free and convenient, small and lightly staffed offices of all kinds often use these online tools.
Private information publicly available online
On occasion, though, the use of such tools can have serious consequences; a situation we recently saw first-hand when a family office’s consolidated financial statement of family wealth – produced by the office for the second generation – was found on an online PDF host website. After legal engagement with the domain owner of the PDF hosting website, the PDF was removed, but not before it became the number one Google search result for the family name. Following a digital forensic investigation, it was concluded that the document had been scraped when a member of staff uploaded it to a Word to PDF convertor prior to sharing with the family.
Be aware of the privacy risks
There are many reasons that these sharing sites should not be used. Firstly, the Terms & Conditions of these file conversion and sharing sites may be unclear – or even non-existent. Users may therefore be unknowingly agreeing to giving up ownership of their content or even granting the website’s host permission to publish the files in full. In practice, this could result in your sensitive document being available on Google, if someone were to search your name, leading to serious and sometimes irreparable, damage to reputation, security and privacy.
Secondly, free file conversion and sharing sites may not offer the same level of security and privacy as paid services: after all, there’s a reason they’re free. These sites are usually hosted online simply as digital real estate for online adverts or links to other paid services. The upkeep of the site, the security of the tool, and monitoring the use of it are not usually prioritised by such platforms.
Due to this, these sites may be insecure and vulnerable to attack or misuse from bad actors. They often host malware or ransomware embedded into their code – which can allow cyber threat groups to access servers and cause data breaches. These types of threats are not targeted at family offices or small businesses per se but are laid as ‘digital traps’ to catch unsuspecting users. Even in a best-case scenario, these “free” tools may be selling your data, search habits, or other information about your use of the tool.
Once files containing sensitive information are in the public domain, they are very difficult to control. Even with a robust legal strategy to challenge republication on the grounds of copyright, privacy, security and/or data protection, files that have been downloaded and saved locally or published to the dark web will never be recovered.
So what are the safe alternatives?
Paying for premium versions of productivity software such as Microsoft Office 365 is a sound investment for smaller offices and individuals. In addition, tightening information management procedures – which all staff should follow when working with documentation – and conducting training will ensure that the ‘human’ error is reduced as much as possible.
Online translation software has become increasingly popular in recent years, enabling people all over the world to communicate with each other with ease. For immediate speech and text translation, tools such Google Lens have been game changing. However, whilst these instant forms of translation are often adequate to understand the main ideas of a conversation or document, if full, accurate translation is required, there are usually two options: automated, such as Google Translate or Deepl; and human.
Your privacy and security could be compromised
Using a supposedly harmless tool such as Google Translate may seem a safe option, but online automated translation tools suffer many of the same limitations and security concerns as the file sharing and conversion tools discussed above – namely, that by using such a tool, you may be agreeing to the platform potentially publishing the text you input. The Terms of Service of the most popular online translation tool, Google Translate, states that it has the right to ‘host, reproduce, distribute, communicate and use your content, as well as publish, publicly perform or publicly display your content’. While Google’s licence to use the content is only for limited purposes, platforms have no responsibility to alert you if they do indeed use it, so you could quickly lose control of any sensitive information.
Should the need arise for accurate translation of sensitive documents or voice recordings, accredited translation services should be sought.
Ultimately, while the huge range of free online tools may seem like convenient and cost-effective solutions for small lightly staffed offices, they come with a range of risks and limitations that should be taken into account.
For anyone who has sensitive data to protect – it is recommended to invest in secure, paid services for file conversion, sharing and translation tools. This will provide a higher level of security and confidence in the protection of sensitive information – and will hopefully avoid any privacy, reputation or security crises that may result.