We’ve had Sony, Talk Talk, Tesco Bank and the Democratic Party. Now, David Beckham is the latest individual to have his emails hacked with embarrassing revelations being made about his communications with advisers expressing his disappointment at being passed over for a knighthood in, seemingly, quite forceful terms.
So what does this tell us? Well, firstly, that the risk of being hacked exists for celebrities every bit as much as it does for business. Potentially there will be scores of other celebrities and high-profile public figures who could be vulnerable to this kind of attack.
It was not Beckham personally who was hacked, but his advisers. Lawyers, agents, managers and other representatives – the list is endless. Potentially anyone who has shared correspondence with that individual will be vulnerable. They will all need to ensure their systems are as secure as possible and that everyone in their organisations is aware of the scrutiny and security they face.
It is unlikely, of course, that those working with Beckham would have been unaware of this already but we may now see high-profile figures insisting on the highest standards of security before going into a relationship.
In many ways it’s surprising that this doesn’t happen more often. Most modern celebrities don’t live completely private lives. They are surrounded by agents, managers, advisers, close and more distant relatives, personal assistants, sponsors and others. Plenty of people in these circles appreciate that their proximity to fame and money comes with a need for complete discretion. But they have never been completely impregnable. We’ve had indiscreet royal butlers, personal assistants burning through the credit cards of their celebrity employers, embarrassing courtroom evidence as well as almost constant anonymous gossip and rumour with varying degrees of authenticity recounting how the rich and famous behave when their guard is dropped.
Hacking is a more dangerous, example of this because it seems increasingly difficult to prevent. Just ask Hillary Clinton. There are various elements of the Beckham hack which might well be concerning to many high profile or wealthy individuals.
Firstly, that the hackers were able to infiltrate confidential communications between David Beckham personally and his advisers and then use these to attempt blackmail. Pay up or we’ll embarrass you. Wisely, his advisers didn’t give in to this. That decision may have been made easier by the fact the information gleaned seems to be embarrassing, rather than create any serious legal problems but it’s difficult to see how giving in to demands like that could ever be the correct approach.
Secondly, privacy law is proving of limited value in preventing information getting out there. This is the latest example of the limits of using injunctions to suppress information because the injunction obtained in the UK preventing publication of the story was rendered pointless very quickly.
The big problems in using injunctions are that the UK courts can only control what happens here in the UK. Indeed, the English courts don’t even control what can be published in Scotland – as Beckham could have found out from his former team mate, Ryan Giggs.
And while hacking is illegal, it is increasingly difficult to prevent given that hackers can be based almost anywhere in the world, might well be protected by certain foreign governments and have a skillset that helps them avoid detection.
Thirdly, this can have a cost. There is no suggestion that anything Beckham has done is unlawful. However, Beckham is a bankable ambassador for brands, products and charitable causes because of his good image, and because people like him. Anything which diminishes his standing or reputation, could affect this. According to Beckham’s advisers, the hacked correspondence has been doctored and edited to add swear words and generally make it more embarrassing.
Maybe one consequence of this will be a ditching of technology altogether for some of the most sensitive conversations or discussions which will happen face to face although this is unlikely to be possible all the time.
The biggest risk might be that if, as time passes, this incident is seen to have affected “Brand Beckham” in a serious way, it motivates other hackers to do the same.
Liam McMonagle is an IP partner at Thorntons