Data Leak: What is it, what causes it and how to prevent it
Data in this digital era is the new oil, driving innovation and powering business all over the world. The internet of things and cloud technology has provided organizations with unprecedented access to customer data, sensitive business information and other valuable intellectual property. However, with great power comes great responsibility, and businesses need to be vigilant of the threat of data breaches which can expose data to fraud, theft and cybercriminals.
According to Norton, a digital security company, the average cost of a data breach in the U.S. is $8.19 million, a figure that is higher than any other country in the world. In this article, we will discuss what a data leak is, the primary causes of data leaks, and some preventive measures that businesses can take to avoid these breaches.
## Understanding Data Leaks
A data leak is a situation where sensitive information is accidentally or intentionally compromised to an unauthorized recipient. This can happen to any individual or organization - whether a retail store, social media company, financial institution or even a government agency. Data can be leaked in many ways, from hacking into company webs, weak passwords,unprotected servers, phishing, and even malware attacks. The impact of data breaches can cause serious personal and corporate damage including financial loss, loss of competitive advantage, and sanctions by regulatory authorities or even criminal charges.
Companies that deal with sensitive information, manage financial records, or hold confidential personal data can be tempting targets for hackers who may want to use the information for fraudulent purposes, blackmail, or identity theft. Data leaks can happen due to many reasons, from human error to criminal activities. One high profile example is the Equifax breach which saw over 143 million accounts hacked in 2017. This breach led to the resignation of the CEO and settlement of a class-action lawsuit estimated at $700 million. As a result of this single leak, credit card and personal information were exposed to cybercriminals who later used it for fraud and theft.
## Common causes of Data Leaks
There are many factors that contribute to the probability of a data breach. Human error, system failure, third party vulnerabilities, and theft/hacking are the most common causes. We’ll explore these in more detail:
### Human Error
Employees are human and are bound to make mistakes. While they could be trained and understand the consequences of negligence, some may look for shortcuts to ease their workload. This may include documenting sensitive information in an unsecured network, opening phishing emails, downloading and opening attachments, or using weak passwords which are easily guessable. An example of human error is the Wells Fargo data breach that saw 50,000 individual’s sensitive information being leaked due to system failure.
### System Failure
System failure is another common cause of data leakage which may be due to outdated software, weak passwords, or a lack of physical security measures. Hackers can take advantage of these vulnerabilities by using malware, viruses, ransomware, and other malicious software to access confidential data. The Stuxnet virus is one such example; this sophisticated virus was designed to target a specific industrial plant SCADA system. Once inside the system, it caused some of the centrifuges to spin out of control while reporting normal operational activities, thereby causing physical damage to the plant.
### Third-party vulnerabilities
As companies grow, it is common for them to outsource business to third-party vendors. This provides a business advantage by helping them to access technology, expertise, and cost benefits. However, this also comes with an increased risk of data breaches. A vendor may gain entry with weak passwords, faulty systems, or direct cyberattacks. An example is the breach of Target stores’ data which saw information on 40 million credit cards leaked in 2013. This was due to a small vendor who had access to the system and happened to be the entry point for the target.
Hacking involves using sophisticated technologies to break into systems and steal data. Cybercriminals use techniques such as SQL injections, social engineering, and distributed denial of service (DDoS) to install malware and spyware that captures sensitive information and sends it back to the hacker. The Sony Pictures data breach is an example of a hack that shocked the world. In 2014, the studio was hacked by a group claiming to be North Koreans and sensitive emails spread around the world causing damages to Sony’s reputation, billion dollars in loss, and even made some international relations challenges.
## Prevention Measures
There is no single cure for data breaches, but the following measures can vastly reduce risk:
• Training and Security awareness:Employees need regular security training and awareness programs. These programs educate employees on what to look for in phishing emails, how to keep track of their passwords, and how to properly handle sensitive information.
• Implement a Strong Password Policy: Companies need to make sure that their employees use strong passwords that are not easily guessable. In addition, passwords should be changed regularly, and a two-factor authentication system should be put in place.
• Keep systems updated: Organizations need to ensure that their systems are up-to-date with the latest security patches and antivirus software.
• Physical Security: To reduce third party vulnerabilities access points should be restricted with physical and electronic barriers if necessary.
• Regular vulnerability assessments: Companies need to conduct regular security audits and vulnerability assessments of their systems.
In conclusion, data leaks are a risk that businesses face every day. As stated earlier, a data breach not only shows up on business financial nor damage can be underestimated, but also can give negative impact to those who are affected directly or indirectly by such an event. However, with preventive measures, such risks can be significantly reduced. Proper understanding, implementation, and supervision of company-wide cybersecurity guidelines can result in profound risk reduction resulting in a thriving business ecosystem.