Humans can be Data-Breached. How Safe is your CEO?

Published on December 30, 2018

Extortion. Blackmail. Data leakage. Targeted spearphishing.

Your organization’s leadership are not only prime targets for cyber attackers but also a principal attack vector themselves. Defending your executive team, both online and physically requires a new approach: acting and thinking like “the bad guys.”

Cybercriminals constantly try to find and distribute sensitive information about these high-profile, high-net-worth individuals. When they’re familiar with someone’s name, likeness and personal web presence, bad actors can sell information about the super-wealthy, or use it against them in digital attacks. These digital invasions can also translate into disturbing real-world attacks: since 2013, 78,617 firms have been scammed out of more than $12 billion. The bad guys only had to exploit the financial executives at these companies to make it happen. So-called spearphishing and whaling attacks are two ways to do it.

A spearphishing attack is a maneuver that targets employees with sensitive information via email. The threat actor pretends to be an executive, and often fools the employee. This is because the hacker has more information about the CEO than anyone should, and can, therefore, impersonate them convincingly.

This makes it easy to fool employees into sending sensitive information to someone who claims to be legit but is actually a malicious actor. In 2016, a Seagate employee emailed income tax data for several employees to a hacker, exposing thousands of people’s personal data to a third party.  

Whaling attacks target executives directly and are another successful form of attack. These emails and websites contain information gleaned from a variety of sources. By using information like addresses, titles, family names, and colleagues’ names and titles, these emails can even fool the highest-ranking personnel into giving up company secrets. For the boldest cybercriminals, this information can also be used to target executives for extortion and ransom pay in the real world.

If you want to prevent harm to executives while stopping damaging cyber attacks, you must have a security program that bridges the digital and physical worlds. It should find leaked personal data, track what potential attackers can find, and minimize the likelihood of information falling into the wrong hands.

Internet-scale visibility is crucial to protecting your attack surface.

Just like a website, server, or mobile app, your executives are a key attack vector for hackers. No employee is more central your business operations, nor has access to more sensitive, potentially damaging information. Humans can be data-breached too!

Organizations must combat internet-scale threats with internet-scale visibility. If they have a real-time picture of how their executives appear across the internet, they can understand the massive scope of their attack surface and develop an effective threat management strategy to protect it.

Crossing your fingers for luck is no strategy at all.


Dan Schoenbaum is a columnist with Grit Daily. He has 23 years of leadership with high-growth software companies. As the President and COO, Dan leads Sales, Marketing and Customer Success functions for RiskIQ. Formerly, he was the CEO of Cooladata, a leader in Cloud data warehousing and machine learning. Dan was also the CEO of Redbooth, where he grew the company from startup to Gartner “cool vendor” with over a million paying users worldwide. Redbooth was acquired by AeroFS. Dan was the COO and Chief Business Development Officer for Tripwire, a leader in datacenter security, where he helped triple revenues, file an S1 on the NASDAQ and sell the company. Dan was also the Chairman of Mergers & Acquisitions and Strategy at Compuware – a billion dollar enterprise software company- and is credited with the creation of an $800M line of products at Mercury Interactive (acquired by HP for 4.6B). Dan was also a First Sergeant and a sniper in the paratroopers.

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