What is a data breach and how can it be prevented?
- How a data breach is defined
- What are the methods used to gain access during a data breach?
- Where threats originate
- What are the potential consequences of a data breach?
- How can you prevent and prepare for a data breach?
- What should you do after a data breach?
- The cost of a data breach
- How to mitigate the threat of data breach
We have all heard the term “data breach” in the news, and it’s appearing with increasing frequency. But what exactly is a data breach, how dangerous is it to your organization, and how can you prevent it?
How a data breach is defined
A data breach is defined as an event that exposes an organization’s sensitive, confidential, or protected information to someone not authorized to access it. Data files exposed in a breach may be viewed or shared widely for any number of reasons, many of them malicious.
What are the methods used to gain access during a data breach?
The two most common methods used to gain access during a data breach take advantage of weaknesses in technical devices or programs and user behavior.
Technology devices, programs, and platforms have proliferated faster than the implementation of security measures to protect them. Malicious actors can take advantage of these security flaws to access data covertly.
On the user side, poor password management, the sharing of credentials, stolen or misplaced devices, and malware, ransomware, or phishing attacks can all result in a data breach. User behavior can also be manipulated — or simply taken advantage of – to allow hackers to work around internal security measures.
Where threats originate
Threats to your data can originate from numerous sources, both inside and outside your organization. However, not all of these sources are malicious. They may simply stem from ignorance, oversight, or accident. This doesn’t make these breaches any less serious or detrimental to your organization.
Here are some of the most common entry points for data breaches:
- Unintentional internal access. This occurs when employees accidentally gain access to files or folders for which they are not authorized. This could be when using a coworker’s laptop or login credentials, signing into a shared computer that has saved a coworker’s credentials, or viewing unauthorized material another user has saved to the wrong drive or folder.
- Stolen or misplaced devices. Unencrypted phones, laptops, external hard drives, and other data storage devices may be misplaced at a restaurant, bar, public park, or other heavy-traffic area and accessed by unauthorized persons. Malicious actors may also intentionally steal such devices from unsuspecting or careless employees. Employees who are allowed to bring their own unsecured devices into the workplace, or use personal endpoint devices for work, can allow malware or ransomware applications to give access to sensitive data on the device.
- Malicious actors. Organizations are under threat from both internal and external actors who purposely seek to gain access to data for which they do not have authorization. These include hackers, data brokers, and individuals involved in both corporate and political espionage.
- Third-party vendors. Third-party apps and platforms — even those approved for use by your organization — can be used by malicious actors to infiltrate your system. The more popular the platform or application, the more of a target it is for malware attacks.
- Poor password management. Most data breaches occur due to the use of ineffective, poor or easily-guessed passwords. According to one report, 61% of breaches can be attributed to compromised passwords. One compromised password can also open the door to numerous accounts, as users often employ the same password across multiple platforms. Organizations themselves often mismanage these types of credentials as well by giving the same initial credentials to third-party vendors, employees, and contractors.
- Phishing attacks. Malicious actors often send emails and text messages purporting to be from a trusted source in order to convince users to share passwords and other personal information. They can easily deceive employees to share sensitive information by posing as someone in a senior leadership role, or as a trusted third-party vendor.
What are the potential consequences of a data breach?
The consequences of a data breach can be catastrophic. A data breach can result in significant financial ramifications, reputational fallout, or even a complete loss of access to business-critical data, effectively preventing your organization from operating until the demands of the hackers are met.
The harm caused by a data breach can also be far-reaching. For governmental organizations, compromised data can expose highly sensitive information to foreign agencies or other bad actors. This could include information about foreign policy dealings, military movements, or state secrets.
Individuals who experience a data breach can fall victim to identity theft, resulting in fraudulent dealings in their names. This can cause financial ruin and legal entanglements that are difficult to navigate.
Breaches experienced by businesses that house customer data can also face numerous ramifications, not only reputational or financial, but regulatory. Data breach notification laws must be adhered to or fines could be imposed.
How can you prevent and prepare for a data breach?
Organizations and governments of all sizes are at risk of a data breach, as are individuals. Data breach prevention begins with preparedness and planning. All organizations should be prepared to both mitigate the risk of a data breach and to act quickly in the event of a breach.
To mitigate your risk, follow these best practices:
- Discover sensitive data. Ensure that you are aware of all the data your organization possesses, both what it is and where it’s stored, so you know how to protect it.
- Classify sensitive data. By categorizing your data based on criteria such as its sensitivity and risk level, you can more easily assign access privileges and security measures. This can also aid your organization in maintaining regulatory compliance.
- Implement access controls. Implementing these types of controls allows sensitive data to be accessed only by those who require it. Users must authenticate themselves and their devices, which can be streamlined by implementing an automated data classification tool.
- Encrypt your data. Protect your data at the source with robust encryption that makes it more difficult for hackers to use. While encrypting data doesn’t guarantee your data’s security, a lengthy decryption process can both dissuade hackers and give you more time to identify the breach and implement your response plan.
- Actively monitor data. By implementing active monitoring of your data, your organization will be alerted when unauthorized or abnormal behavior within files of data is detected. This can shorten the amount of time an attacker has access to your sensitive data, and may lessen the amount of data exposed.
- Upgrade devices and stay current on patches and software updates. When software is no longer supported by the manufacturer, your organization should upgrade to a supported version. New patches and software updates are vital to mitigating security risks posed by devices and programs.
- Educate your workforce. All employees in your organization should be aware of what a data breach is and how one can occur. Share information about the importance of password management, and discuss the threats posed by questionable emails, text messages, and public or unsecured wifi networks. Enforcing strong password credentials or a password manager as well as multi-factor authentication can reduce overall risk as well.
What should you do after a data breach?
If a breach does occur, you should have a data breach response plan in place. Prepare to share news of a breach that will disclose all pertinent details with multiple parties. This may include executives, legal counsel, and regulatory agencies. The more details you can provide to regulatory agencies, the better. This can both help you with containment and future attack prevention and may lessen regulatory punishment.
The most important party to notify in the event of a breach is, of course, any affected customers or employees. Your notification should be accurate and timely, and a plan should be in place to compensate them for any issues they may face as a result of the breach.
The cost of a data breach
What could a data breach really cost your organization? Try this data breach calculator tool now to understand what’s at stake. However, keep in mind that the costs here factor in a timely incident reporting. Failure to report a data breach can result in a much higher regulatory fine.
How to mitigate the threat of data breach
Organizations can invest in robust security solutions that mitigate the threat of a breach through accurate data discovery, classification, and remediation, as well as ongoing monitoring.
Solutions like these ensure that when and if a breach occurs, you’re able to detect and contain it quickly. Additionally, events can be reported in detail to all relevant parties, from investors and stakeholders to regulatory agencies and victims.