At its core, a data leak is when sensitive data is accidentally exposed or gets out some other way.
Typically, this means through lost hard drives, physical laptop or other device breaches, or through a cyber attack.
Whether it’s your personal information from your corporate server, sensitive employee information, or large-scale customer data that was lost, data leaks take different forms.
And while many cyber security attacks are unexpected, there are certain steps you can take to prevent data leaks.
After all, prevention is better than cure.
So, if you’re wondering how to better manage your data information and what to do in case your information gets leaked, you’ve come to the right place.
Below, we’ll cover how data leaks work, examples, some of the most common causes for leaks, best practices to prevent leaks, and more.
Here's what you'll learn:
- What Is A Data Leak And What Are Some Of The Most Common Causes?
- What To Do If Your Company Sensitive Information Got Out. 3 Main Steps To Respond to a Data Leak
- 5 Best Practices To Prevent Data Leaks Regardless Of Your Organization Industry
What Is A Data Leak And What Are Some Of The Most Common Causes?
First things first, what is a data leak, exactly?
Essentially, a data breach or data leak means your sensitive, confidential, or protected data has gotten out to an untrusted environment.
Whether it is the potential reputational damage or financial, legal, and regulatory damage, a data breach can have long-lasting adverse effects on your company, regardless of its parent industry.
When we hear about data leaks or breaches, the first thing that comes to mind is a group of hackers working endlessly to crack a security system or a company's database.
While this certainly holds true in some cases, this is not the case in most instances of data breaches.
Hackers find it very easy to exploit an organization with poor data management practices, especially if employees lack adequate data security awareness.
Unfortunately, in most cases of data breaches, the latter instance described above holds true.
Hackers and malicious attackers don't have to sweat before exploiting secure systems and companies' databases.
A simple individual oversight or a flaw in your company's infrastructure can snowball into a disastrous data leak.
In fact, the most common forms of data leaks include:
- Misconfigured software settings.
- Social engineering or human error.
- Recycled or reused passwords.
- Physical theft.
- Software vulnerabilities.
- Employees using common, recycled, or easy-to-guess passwords.
And according to IBM, the average cost of worldwide data breaches in 2020 amounted to $3.86M.
While many small businesses think they’re immune to data leaks, because hackers would rather target corporations, this isn’t at all the case.
A new study reveals that 57% of SMBs believe they won't be targeted by online criminals, but almost 20% experienced an attack in the past year. For small businesses, the average cost of a data breach ranges around $108,000.
Generally, a data breach can occur due to vulnerabilities in company technology or user behavior (also known as social engineering).
Here’s how this works.
Technology data leaks
Connectivity features of mobile devices and computers are developing to match the pace of technology evolution. Protection of associated technologies can't match the pace of technological development.
This essentially means that newer technology is developed faster than we can achieve 'integral' protection. The status quo has resulted in a situation where we now value convenience over security.
Many 'smart office' products feature intrinsic structural flaws, like lack of encryption or proper management roles, which hackers are now exploiting.
Here are a few quick ways to encrypt your sensitive data:
- Is Gmail Secure To Protect Your Emails? (Encryption Overview)
- 5+ Ways To Password Protect And Encrypt Files On Windows
- How to Send Secure and Encrypted Emails (Gmail, Outlook, iOS, and More)
User behavior data leaks
Even if your company's backend technology is perfectly designed and invulnerable, employees or users can have poor data and digital practices.
Usually, this includes things like:
- Not having an established corporate data security policy.
- Lack of employee awareness and training.
- Not properly securing your organization's remote environment.
- Granting full network access upon authorization to everyone.
- Failing to adapt to modern technologies.
- And more.
Knowing what you should be protecting is also essential when you want to secure yourself against data leaks.
The 3 major sensitive information categories you should be striving to protect include:
- Personal information - This includes information linked to individuals and, if leaked, could result in varying degrees of harm to said individual. Examples include social security numbers, medical data, passport numbers, biometric information, and personal financial information.
- Business information - This refers to the totality of data that can cause varying degrees of damage to a company in a leak. They include financial data, supplier information, customer data, trade secrets, and other sensitive information.
- Classified information - This refers to information and data that the government or a governmental body restricts because of security concerns. There exist different sensitivity levels, each with its hierarchical level of authority - restricted, secret, top-secret and confidential.
Now, before we cover how to respond to data leaks, let’s briefly go over some of the most common reasons why data breaches occur.
How do data breaches happen?
To actively combat data leaks/breaches, you need to know what to look out for.
Some of the most common reasons data breaches happen include:
- Unauthorized access - This presents a scenario where an employee or user can access information outside their scope of work/authority, especially through an authorized co-worker's workstation. Even though the access can be accidental/unintentional, due to the unauthorized access, data is considered breached.
- Criminal insider - Here, a user/employee deliberately accesses and/or shares data with the sole purpose of causing harm to your company. Information access might not be unauthorized. Said user might have a legitimate authorization. However, the intent remains nefarious.
- Physical actions - Physical data breach incidents mainly involve the loss or theft of paperwork or electronic devices like laptops, phones, and storage devices - especially if lost electronic devices aren't encrypted.
- Criminal hacking - This happens when malicious criminals outside your organization use the different means at their disposal to attack your network/employee and gather information for nefarious purposes.
What To Do If Your Company Sensitive Information Got Out. 3 Main Steps To Respond to a Data Leak
As with anything, destruction is always easier than construction.
The same principle applies to data breaches and leaks. In many cases, you can't fix data breaches with a simple action like a password change.
The effects of a data leak will likely be long-lasting for your reputation, finances, operations, finances, and more.
And the sooner you take action against a data breach, the more likely you are to minimize its effects.
In that case, some of the biggest steps you should take are as follows.
1. Ensure the integrity of your operations posthaste
First and foremost, you have to ensure the integrity of your operations as soon as possible.
Take immediate steps to safeguard your systems and address any vulnerabilities that contributed to the incident.
Once you have experienced a data breach, what you don't want to happen is to suffer multiple data breaches. So what you want to do first is secure your operations ASAP. Immediately take steps to ensure that it doesn't happen again.
You can focus on assessing the damages afterward.
To achieve this, you'll have to secure and isolate the areas related to the breach. As long as you suspect that any area is related to the data breach, don't hesitate to lock them, change the access codes, and, if possible, shut them down.
Immediately mobilize your breach response team to avoid more data loss.
Depending on your business structure, what you want to do next is mobilize your breach response team.