What Is a Data Breach?

No matter what industry your organization is in, you probably have access to some type of sensitive information. That could mean personal information about customers or trade secrets about your products or services. It is also likely that much of this confidential information is stored digitally. Although technology can be convenient, it does have weaknesses, and those weaknesses can be exploited by attackers to steal the data that you have access to. A data breach can have long-term effects on your organization, but understanding what it is and how to prevent it can help keep your information safe.

What Is a Data Breach?

A data breach occurs when sensitive information is exposed and taken from a system without authorization from the system’s owner. This information can include sensitive, proprietary, or confidential data like trade secrets, financial information, customer data, and even matters of national security. Whether the information is stolen for malicious purposes or simply made available to individuals other than the authorized users, any exposed confidential information is considered a data breach.

As technology advances to include more connective features between different devices and networks, the opportunities for vulnerabilities that allow data to be exposed also increase. Any individual or organization that has access to confidential information is at risk for a data breach, including governments and high-level enterprises.

There are many different ways that a data breach can occur, but hackers most often target areas of weakness in user behavior or technology. Therefore, it is important to incorporate comprehensive security measures for both users and organizations to ensure that the data you have access to is secure and cannot be stolen by unauthorized users. With robust cybersecurity measures and employees that are trained on what to look for, you can prevent a data breach in your organization.

How Data Breaches Happen

There are several ways that a data breach can occur, but the largest percentage of breaches are a result of hacking or malware attacks. Although the majority of breaches happen due to intentional attacks, some can happen as a result of unintentional actions. Other potential threats and causes of data breaches include:

  • Loss or theft. If a portable device is lost or stolen, hackers can quickly gain access to sensitive data using your device that is already connected to the network or system that contains the information. Anything from laptops and office computers to files could expose confidential information if lost or stolen.
  • Unintended disclosure. A mistake or negligence when working with data can open the door for a breach and expose crucial information.
  • Insider leak. This type of breach occurs when a person within the organization that has authorized access to information steals the data. They could use the information for their own purposes or sell it to others.
  • Payment card fraud. Attackers can attach physical skimming devices where people often use payment cards that steal the data and offer access to financial information, including credit card numbers and other personal information.
  • Unknown. For a small percentage of data breaches, the method that the hacker used to gain access to sensitive information is unknown. These can be especially damaging as it is difficult to resolve the problem and patch the vulnerability that presents an opportunity for a breach.

It is important to understand the various ways that a data breach can happen so that you can implement countermeasures to prevent the loss of data. It can also help to understand the different phases of the breach so that you can catch potential threats before any data is exposed.

The first phase of a breach is research. During this phase, the attacker works to find out what infrastructure your organization has and then looks for potential vulnerabilities. Once they identify a weakness, they research the best ways to exploit the vulnerability to gain access and bypass authentication tools.

After researching the system and its weaknesses is the attack or initial contact. The most common methods of attack include phishing, brute force, and malware. Phishing is designed to fool you into letting your guard down and handing over access to the data. Brute force attacks use software to guess passwords and gain access to the system using your credentials. Malware uses the security flaws within whatever operating system, software, hardware, or network that you connect to steal data. Attacks can be either social or network-based, so security measures should address each possibility.
The final phase of a data breach is to exfiltrate. This is when the attacker extracts data from the network that they can then use to plan and execute a more damaging attack.

Data Breach Targets

As mentioned previously, attackers will most often target weaknesses that they can find in technology or user behaviors. As new technologies are created, they tend to prioritize convenience over security, which presents plenty of opportunities for a data breach. Although protection methods may be lacking, poor digital habits can be equally damaging. There are a few common vulnerabilities that attackers target, which include:

  • Weak credentials. When people reuse passwords or use credentials that are simple and easy to guess, they leave an open door to the network that attackers can use to breach the system and steal information.
  • Stolen credentials. Protecting login information is just as important as creating strong credentials. Attackers often use phishing methods to get ahold of credentials that then offer access to accounts and sensitive information.
  • Compromised assets. No matter how secure your credentials are, hackers can bypass authentication steps altogether by installing malware that negates such assets.
  • Payment card fraud. Card skimmers can be attached to things like gas pumps and ATMs to steal data from payment cards which allows confidential financial information to be exposed.
  • Third-party access. Hackers can gain access to your system through third-party vendors if the third party does not have adequate cybersecurity.
  • Mobile devices. Personal mobile devices that connect to company networks can be used to download malware and give access to data without employees even realizing it.

Data Breach Consequences

Although the loss of data like sensitive financial information or corporate secrets is the most obvious consequence of a data breach, there are other effects that are just as severe. One such consequence is the damage to an organization’s reputation. A data breach can be a black stain on the reputation and cause customers to lose trust in the organization and ultimately take their business elsewhere. Companies may also be subject to fines for lost data, which can result in irreparable financial loss for the company.

If hackers launch an attack on a government agency, the data breach can threaten the safety of that government and its citizens. On a smaller scale, individual attacks can result in the loss of personal data, whether that is health information or banking details.

There have been a few notable data breaches throughout history that demonstrate the consequences of insufficient security measures. For example, Yahoo! suffered two data breaches back to back in 2013 and 2014. During these attacks, hackers were able to steal personal information connected to up to 1.5 billion Yahoo! accounts. The exposed information included email addresses, names, and security questions and answers.

Twitter had a data breach in 2018 that exposed user passwords when the process that was used to encrypt passwords had problems. Two years later, there was another data breach at Twitter that affected businesses that used Twitter’s advertising and analytics platforms.

In May 2019, more than 885 million sensitive documents from First American Financial Corporation were exposed when digitized files were made available online. This breach was caused by a website design error that allowed unauthorized users to access sensitive financial information like bank account numbers, mortgage records, tax documents, and other confidential documents.

Facebook also suffered a data breach in 2019 when a server that was not password protected was exposed. This meant that the phone numbers of over 419 million users were exposed.

No matter how large or small an enterprise is, there is the possibility of a data breach. That is why it is crucial for businesses to stay up-to-date on the most common methods of data breaches and the ways to prevent them.

How to Prevent Data Breaches

While it may seem difficult to plan for every possibility, there are a few key steps you can take to protect your organization from a data breach. A clear understanding of the different threats and how to spot signs of an attack can help catch a breach before it exposes confidential data and help prevent the damage from escalating. Best practices must be followed by every member of the organization to be effective.

  • Create strong passwords. This means employees should not reuse passwords or use something that is too simple. A password manager can help keep credentials secure and prevent unintended disclosure of login information.
  • Utilize multi-factor authentication (MFA). Even strong passwords can be compromised by a brute force attack, but an MFA adds an extra layer of protection. This means that users must prove their identity in addition to entering the proper credentials, which can prevent unauthorized access.
  • Stay up-to-date on software. Be sure to always use the latest version of any software system. Turning on automatic updates can help keep everything up-to-date.
  • Visit only secure URLs. In order to avoid malware, only open and visit trusted URLs.
  • Educate and train employees. Employees can better spot threats and take action when they are aware of the risks and common types of attacks.
  • Create a response plan. Even with the above tips, something can slip through the cracks. If this should happen, a response plan can help employees quickly report the attack and take steps to minimize the damage.

Cloud SecOps from Ontinue ION

No matter how large or small your organization is, it is important to implement security measures if you use a cloud-based environment for any part of your business. Ontinue ION is a high-quality cloud security provider that works with Microsoft-based organizations to keep data secure and identify threats before they cause problems. 

ION allows you to take a pragmatic and proactive approach to your cloud security so that you can make the most of your Microsoft environment. The best part is that ION works continuously to provide non-stop SecOps in both cloud and traditional environments so that your team can detect and respond to threats quickly. You can do more with your Microsoft investments with less effort and burden to your teams, all with the help of cloud security from Ontinue ION. Request a demo today to learn more about the benefits of ION and how to get started.