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Hush CEO Mykolas Rambus — the journey from CIO to digital privacy founder

Mark Chillingworth Profile picture for user Mark Chillingworth April 18, 2024
Detroit-based Mykolas Rambus is reducing the risk of having an online presence for business leaders and celebrities

An image of Hush CEO Mykolas Rambus
(Image sourced via Hush)

US President Joe Biden's Executive Order has pushed digital privacy into political discourse. Could that benefit CIO turned start-up founder and CEO Mykolas Rambus? The former CIO of Forbes Media is using his enterprise digital leadership experience to pioneer digital privacy-as-a-service as he sees his C-Suite peers face rising levels of risk.

Rambus founded digital privacy service Hush in 2021, having had first-hand experience of why digital privacy is so important for high-profile individuals and leaders; he says: 

The more senior and high profile you become, then you also become a high-class target.

As co-founder and CEO of Wealth-X, a market research and data company, Rambus was on the receiving end of threatening action. He and CTO Karthik Nallamothu realized that their experience of making information accessible could also be used to protect leaders. They led Wealth-X in 2010 from a couch in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and the company grew to 300 staff and 500 clients. That was the good news, but as he says: 

Along the way we attracted some of the right attention and some of the wrong attention. We found ourselves being targeted by foreign intelligence agencies, some oligarchs and organized crime. 

That led us to think of how to best protect ourselves, our families and employees. We found as we talked to law enforcement agencies that for individuals there was no reasonable way to mitigate and protect your privacy online.

That personal experience brought to mind the killing of Forbes Russia Editor Paul Klebnikov, which took place during Rambus' tenure as CIO at the international news organization. Forbes says of their former colleague: 

Klebnikov was a walking database of information on the oligarchs, the Chechen terrorists, the Kremlin and the country's intelligence agencies, and the spread of mafia conglomerates around the globe.

Rambus contacted the data broker industry to have his identifiable information removed and discovered how difficult this is. Having sold Wealth-X to Altrata, Rambus couldn't shake off the idea of using technology to protect digital privacy. He says: 

Privacy needs a rethink and it's time to put the toothpaste back into the tube, which is very challenging.

But in 2024, can business and digital leaders not have a presence online? 

Nobody can afford to be a digital hermit, it's just not plausible or credible. Nobody will invest, buy or be a fan if people don't put themselves out there.

Hush can best be described as digital privacy-as-a-service, which identifies risks and removes these from the internet, so a sports star or leader can have a public profile online, but bad actors cannot discover private details about their families. Rambus explains: 

People post images or videos from their phones when they are at home, but one image may contain geographically identifiable information. Hush flags and then remove that image as it poses a risk.

I likened this to the way sports tracking and social media App Strava removes the start and end points of a cyclist's ride to prevent bad actors from identifying where some tasty mountain bikes may reside. Rambus agrees that Hush enables leaders to have a digital presence but with a protective blur around the edges. 

Keeping things quiet 

CTO Karthik Nallamothu was head of data science at Wealth-X and has led the development of AI algorithms that map and identify vulnerabilities before removing them from the web automatically. This saves Hush users from the slow and manual process of applying to hundreds of websites including data brokers, social media postings, and other content such as company filings, floor plans, and more to have information removed. Rambus says: 

The first technology challenge was search. A lot of folks assume that Google is the state of the art in search. The reality is that Google only searches a small fraction of the web. The deep web and dark web go far beyond what Google can do.

Hush barely asks clients for any information; the aim of the service is to act like a threat actor and to see how much information it can find through deep scans of the internet. This uncovers not only material that a C-suite leader may have knowingly published but also examples of when they have been filmed without their knowledge. And, of course, emerging technologies are adding to the privacy challenge: 

When we started, deep fakes were out there, but they were not as prevalent as they are now. With disinformation campaigns, we are beginning to run into sophisticated impersonations of executives.

Clients range from private equity firms that find they are now in the crosshairs of cybercriminals, asset management and hedge fund providers, banking and Fintech firms, sports stars, celebrities and prosecutors: 

Fintech faces an existential risk, as a breach to a payments platform is the end of the company, whilst banks face extraordinary risk and they are always thinking about how they stay one step ahead.

We love that lightbulb moment when we explain to people how that piece of information that they thought was benign can be used against them.

CIO turned CEO 

Rambus went from CIO to Co-founder and CEO, leaving Forbes in 2010 to bootstrap Wealth-X, and he says going from enterprise technology leadership to running a start-up was a powerful lesson in leadership: 

Starting a venture was a great way to make the transition. I could have taken a general manager role, but that would have been a much longer cycle time than making a bet. I think it is something that CIOs are uniquely prepared for. 

Hush is based in Detroit. The city is growing in stature as a tech hub, as its heritage as a world centre for the automotive industry declines. Rambus is proud to return to the city he grew up in and be part of the tech-led future: 

I returned here two years ago, and I thought that this was the place to build this company. The University of Michigan is one the best universities in the US, so there is a great talent pipeline. The quality of life in Michigan is high, and the cost of living is low, with good transport.

My take

When the leader of the free world steps into the debate, you know it will continue to grow. Rambus and many digital leaders have worried that digital privacy has not been given the attention it deserves. 

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