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The weakest link in protecting privacy? Personal staff

Privacy training is key for personal assistants and other employees, as is building trust.

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Sylvia Garcia might be arm-twisted from time to time into sharing a few of her favourite recipes. But when it comes to personal details about the wealthy families she works for, the private chef and personal assistant is immovably mum.

"I have clients who don't even allow me to tell anyone what they like to eat," says Ms. Garcia, who is based in San Francisco and has also worked as an assistant and housekeeper for high-net-worth clients. "These are very, very wealthy people and they are very, very private."

In this age of the internet, social media and always-on mobile communication, keeping personal matters private has become an increasingly pressing concern for many people. In Canada, more than 90 per cent of adults are worried about protecting their privacy, according to a survey last year by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

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This concern isn't fuelled merely by the modesty that's become a part of the Canadian stereotype; it's also driven by uncertainties about what ultimately happens to personal information that is being gathered online.

For wealthy individuals and families, this concern over protecting privacy is often magnified, says Tom McCullough, chairman and chief executive officer at Northwood Family Office, a Toronto boutique firm that oversees the financial affairs of high-net-worth families.

"Where there's more wealth, there's also more complexity and more risk," he says. "At the same time, wealthy people are natural targets for scammers and hackers, who want to go straight to where the money is."

An added challenge for the wealthy: The richer they get, the harder it becomes to keep a low profile. That's why they need to be vigilant about protecting their privacy, says Mr. McCullough.

"The consequences can range from just getting more calls from charities to identity theft and nefarious stuff like ransomware, where you get a note saying all your data will be deleted unless you pay a big amount of cash," he says. "Or maybe you post something on Facebook about being away for two weeks in Turks and Caicos and somebody comes into your house and takes your stuff."

So how can the rich shield their personal information from prying eyes, at a time when Google makes it so easy to find out who's who and marketing technology allows advertisers to follow you wherever you go online?

Start with the basic precautions such as securing passwords and using encryption technology – which converts plain text to code – to protect e-mail and digital files, says Karen Eltis, a University of Ottawa law professor who specializes in internet law and privacy and data security policies.

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For wealthy people who share passwords with personal assistants or other support staff, she offers this advice: Stop it. "Have separate passwords for different people, or change your password immediately after you've shared it with someone," says Prof. Eltis. "It's also a good idea to have logs of when people access your system."

She cautions against using free WiFi, especially for business and financial transactions. Connecting to the internet through a virtual private network might be a better alternative to unsecured WiFi, says Prof. Eltis, but it's important to do due diligence on the VPN provider.

"You need to look at things like whether or not the VPN logs user activity, although it's hard to make sure if they actually adhere to this policy or not," she says. "Some VPNs are known to be more trustworthy than others, so you need to do some research to find out just how solid their reputation is."

With the rise of e-mail phishing – where scam artists pose as a legitimate company or individual to gain access to money or private information – protecting e-mail addresses is also good practice, says Prof. Eltis.

Perhaps the most important, and often overlooked, step is providing privacy training to those in the inner sanctum, she adds.

"The weakest links are very often on the inside," says Prof. Eltis. "It's the personal assistant who hasn't received privacy training who will click on the link in a phishing e-mail and let a malware into the system.

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"You can build a fortress around yourself with the proper technology, but if you haven't trained your personal assistant or your household staff on what they need to do to protect your privacy, then you're not really protected."

Charles Berry, branch manager at the Montreal-based private staffing agency Elite Domo, says putting the right legal framework in place is the first step to ensuring private staff do not, inadvertently or intentionally, jeopardize their wealthy employers' privacy.

"You need to build in a level of legal protection with the appropriate work contracts, jobs descriptions and non-disclosure agreements – that would be the very first and most basic step," says Mr. Berry, who is based in the Toronto office of Elite Domo, which recruits and screens private staff such as housekeepers and personal assistants for wealthy clients.

"But you should also make sure that the people you're hiring truly understand what these documents mean, and aren't just signing without knowing what they're agreeing to."

Beyond this legal framework, perhaps the most effective way for wealthy families to ensure their private staff will help protect their privacy is to build loyalty, says Mr. Berry.

"The onus is on the employer to treat the staff who are in their inner sanctum with the respect they deserve," he says. "When you build trust on both sides, then your staff naturally want to protect you and will do their best to protect your privacy."

For Ms. Garcia, the personal chef, the obligation to protect her clients' privacy continues even after her working relationship with them has ended. Over three decades of working for high-net-worth clients, she has never even taken a single photo of her workplaces or of the people who live in them.

"I could have easily done that without my clients knowing, but there's such a thing as integrity, and when I sign a non-disclosure form it means forever for me," says Ms. Garcia. "So when my non-disclosure says I can't take photos of their children or of their house, I just don't and I never have."

Sometimes, the weakest links in a wealthy family's privacy chain are their children, who may tend to talk casually about their parents' big homes and fancy cars, or even brag about the size of their trust fund.

Vanessa Flockton, a financial advisor at Vancouver-based Nicola Wealth Management, says it's important to talk to the next generation about what information they can share and what they should keep within the family.

A good time to do this, says Ms. Flockton, is when the kids enter their teenage years and can understand the concept of great wealth.

"This is also a good opportunity for the children to understand how their parents' wealth was accumulated and how hard it can be to accumulate wealth," she says. "Of course, fundamentally how much or how little you want to reveal about your wealth is an individual thing, but it's always good to have a discussion about how you talk about the family's wealth."

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