Data breach and how it happens
A data breach is a violation or loss of control over confidential data viewed, stolen, copied, or transferred without permission. Such an event can happen to individuals, businesses, and national governments, whether they use poor or state-of-the-art computer security systems.
A breach can happen physically where the breacher steals a computing device (like a laptop or hard drive) or bypasses these online, the latter of which is the most advanced. However, some violations may be unintentional due to mistakes made by people.
In individual data breaches, we often refer to personally identifiable information like (but not limited to):
- Identification numbers (e.g., ID documents, passports, driver’s licenses, taxpayer material)
- Banking data (e.g., account numbers, card numbers)
- Physical and IP addresses
- Phone numbers
- Biometric data (e.g., facial geometry, voice signatures, retina scans)
- Login details
- Insurance records
- Social security numbers
- Legal records
- Medical information
For business database breaches, violators may also be looking for:
- Employee and personal data
- Corporate accounts
- Digital infrastructure
- Intellectual property
- Competition information
- Legal details
- IT security data
Likewise, government agencies are a goldmine for data, given that they hold tons of information about citizens. However, someone could perform a breach to expose information that officials have hidden from the public or for other political motivations.
Regardless of the violation, data breaches can be incredibly harmful from a personal perspective. Also, they cost millions of dollars a year for corporations.
How do data breaches happen?
As the connectivity between computing devices grows, so do the data breach types. More often than not, people are lured into social engineering, where hackers exploit human emotions of fear, guilt, curiosity, excitement, anger, and sadness.
Attackers look for weaknesses in a computer system and gather ample information about their oblivious target. They make the initial interaction with the intended victims and find ways not to get caught.
Finally, they can exploit the individual once the trust has been established before disengaging. Also, human error plays a massive role. Here, some individuals and companies have little regard for data security.
Let’s look at the most common vehicles for a data breach.
Malicious software or malware, continues to be a prime example of data breach. One way malware makes it onto a person’s computer is through phishing. Links on emails could be attachments that someone downloads onto their device.
Another channel is ‘drive-by downloads,’ where you download the software without knowing how harmful it is. Also, it could be a scenario where that person’s browser has been exploited to run the software without consent.
Users may visit and click on an insecure website or click on a deceptive pop-up window, both of which would contain malware. Malware makes a computer grind to a halt. However, it is capable of far more damaging actions that can gather data in various ways:
This is one of the most costly data violations. Here, the malware restricts access to a computer and its material until the targeted individual pays a ransom. In advanced cases, it may do more by encrypting all files, demanding payment for a solution to decrypting them.
In either scenario, this ransom doesn’t guarantee that the system will function properly. Ransomware attackers use cryptocurrencies as a mode of payment. This method makes it very difficult to trace the perpetrator, given their anonymous nature.
As the name suggests, this program spies on a computer and collects critical information about its user, ranging from passwords to payment details. A popular type of spyware is a keylogger, which records your keystrokes.
Think of it like an invisible camera that can see everything you do on your computer. Keyloggers can observe any sensitive data you type on a keyboard and even monitor your conversations.
The ad-supported software isn’t necessarily harmful. However, in many cases, it can be nasty and go beyond a minor irritant. It comes in the form of pop-ups that are difficult to close on a web page.
Adware can track your surfing activity to serve you seemingly relevant ads. The people behind the adware can create a profile about the user and sell this information to advertisers.
Although these break-ins have an element of social engineering, they are more advanced than simple phishing or malware. Here are some examples:
SQL injection attacks
SQL (Structured Query Language) is a query language often used.
An SQL attack happens when a hacker maliciously controls an application’s SQL coding by commanding it to transfer certain information to a chosen location.
This breach executes on HTML (Hyper Text Markup language), a language used on fonts, graphics, and hyperlinks for the world wide web. Similar to SQL injection, the aim is to inject savage code.
Cross-side scripting allows the offender to masquerade as someone with rights to access specific information. Sadly, such an attack enables this individual to view sensitive data, see keystrokes and even gain cookies to access a user’s browser.
A hacker can force an organization or individual to give up their precious data. However, a more intelligent way is through social engineering. Here, the attackers use manipulative tactics by presenting themselves as a trusted entity, convincing their targets to provide certain information.
Email phishing is one of the most popular methods to achieve this. Here, the breacher sends an email from a seemingly reputable brand to thousands of potential victims. This message will look very similar to the real company, making the attack convincing.
Such an email will trigger the reader into a specific urgent action. This might be to download an attachment or provide login credentials. For instance, the message may come from a service, e.g. Skrill payment service, advising the user that their account has been compromised.
When they click a link, it takes them to a bogus website built by the threat actor to mimic Skrill. If convinced enough, the user offers their login details. With access to this material, the hacker can go to the real site and transfer any funds from that account.
Theft or loss of a data-holding device
A data breach doesn’t always need to happen virtually. An attacker may look to steal a victim’s laptop, hard drive, flash drive, smartphone, tablet, etc. The breacher would have prior knowledge of the targeted information and its usefulness.
Alternatively, an individual or company can experience a data breach if they accidentally lose a data-containing device. When this material goes missing, someone could be lucky enough to access it.
Also, it doesn’t have to be a computing machine. The theft or loss of paperwork can constitute a data leakage.
Human error and misuse
The average person needs to gain more knowledge of the best practices to prevent data breaches. Mistakes by individuals and employees can make certain materials vulnerable to curious snoopers.
One example is when a staff member misuses the information, abusing their privilege. Let’s assume they were given a folder with confidential files. Without applying any passwords to it, whether through negligence or accident, any unauthorized person could view these.
Another instance could be sending an email to the wrong address or sending a document to an unintended person. It can be misplacing a file at a coffee shop or anywhere someone could find it.
Employees know the ins and outs of a company’s operations and infrastructure like the back of their hand. This even applies to those that have left a firm. Current workers have permission to use many business tools.
However, a rogue individual or group in the organization can abuse this privilege and deliberately violate data for their benefit.
Most statistics on data breaches show an increase in physical attacks. This type of in-person breach generally happens in an enterprise environment. Here, the offender poses as a legitimate representative or trusted vendor called upon by the company, which is how they gain access.
If the wrongdoer has done their research, they can target several data-computing machines in the organization, either stealing them in secret or taking them by force.
Types of data breaches
We can view data infringements from two angles, regardless of who a breacher targets or how they execute the breach.
In the wrong hands, people can use data for harmful reasons, mainly for financial gain. For instance, it may be someone who hacks into another person’s bank account to siphon their funds.
Another prime example is an insider working for a company. Because of their familiarity with the working environment, they can easily abuse the business systems. Here, the breacher would have authorization to view the company’s data.
However, for selfish reasons, the breacher could steal money, expose trade secrets or even sell the data to other people or companies.
In some cases, a data breach may happen serendipitously. For instance, a co-worker may find themselves reading personal files of another employee by accident, e.g., by peeping over.
However, because the permission wasn’t given, it becomes a data breach, whether or not that co-worker intends to use the data for harm.
Also, general human error is an accidental breach when an individual or a group mishandles sensitive information without proper security. This leaves the material exposed and easier for anyone nearby to access it.
How to prevent or minimize data breaches?
Stopping data breaches requires a lot of work. Here are the things to implement:
In information security or technology, asset management inventory lists an organization’s hardware/software tools, apps, and processes. It must be regularly updated as devices are added, changed, or retired.
Along with this, the firm must understand the risk profile of each device in real time. Also, asset inventory helps rank assets from the most crucial to the least crucial in the business.
Use VCM tool
A tool that deals with VCM (vulnerability and compliance) looks at evaluating and fixing system weaknesses. Many reports suggest that identifying a data breach can take several days after the incident and even longer to recover from.
So, VCM helps with businesses not being slow to react. Asset management is a component of this process because you first need a list of what you will observe as a security threat.
VCM includes regular automated vulnerability scanning where you search entire systems for misconfigurations, patches, etc. It also includes penetration testing or ethical hacking, a way to simulate a real attack to identify flaws.
Lastly, with VCM, you keep a record of incidents and report a data breach where necessary.
Practice regular audits
A security audit is a surface-level assessment that doesn’t happen as much as asset inventory. Still, it’s useful in a company’s overall information security, where they observe areas of improvement.
Some questions organization leaders could ask in an audit are things like:
- The password and encryption policies
- The network security mechanisms in place (e.g., firewalls, virtual private networks, password managers, anti-virus software, IDS/ IPS, etc.)
- Documentation on information security
- How files are backed up
- How often applications are tested for vulnerabilities
Train and educate employees
As mentioned before, human error is a contributing factor when it comes to confidential information being leaked. Thus, workers, who are the driving force of any organization, need to be well-educated in how to avoid data breaches.
Awareness of this subject matter will make them appreciate the stakes involved in these threats. Along with this, they learn how breaches can damage the company and their livelihood.
Restrict access to your most valuable data
Gone are the days when anyone in an organization had access to files. With the threat of inside jobs, companies have learned the hard way. Leaders have to narrow the pool of employees who should have access to certain programs and information.
A worker that doesn’t need to use specific data shouldn’t get any authority to do so, even casually. So, with fewer eyes and different assigned user roles, it limits the risk of a breach.
Destroy before disposal
Data breach prevention isn’t only about securing existing data but also finding effective ways of destroying irrelevant material. It can be as simple as using a shredder for office documents or the physical destruction of a flash disk.
On a more technological level, we should understand that computer files and electronic communication (like email) are often never deleted for good. That recycling bin at the bottom of your screen or email client still holds records of valuable information.
So, a solid strategy ensures that data with no future use is destroyed without leaving a trace. One technique for digital files is overwriting or getting software specializing in permanent erasure.
Perform regular backups
It is devastating when data is lost without the chance of recovery. However, you can better prepare yourself by backing up data, which is a lifesaver in ransomware attacks and other breaches.
A backup ensures you can be up and running even after a breach. The rule of thumb is to keep three copies of data: the primary and two backups (one stored locally and the other in the cloud).
Of course, you should remember that your backup solutions must also be secure and away from hackers.
Encryption is a super-effective tool in data breach solutions. Although it cannot stop a breacher from accessing specific material, it makes that data unreadable.
Although a skilled hacker can work around this, it’s a resource and time-intensive process. Violators are looking for easy targets, but encryption can be an excellent disincentive.
Individuals and companies can sleep better at night knowing their data is shielded, even if it has been exposed or stolen. Because encryption is among the most important tools for managing the risk of a data breach, critical infrastructure organizations widely mandate it.
Advanced network monitoring
Here, companies implement security software that observes vulnerabilities and, most importantly, gives alerts of potential threats. Network monitoring is often used by the IT guys and works with any device connected to the internet.
Maintain strong passwords
Research has suggested over the years that many people use predictable passcodes for their computers, resulting in password data breaches. This is something that’s overlooked even by the most experienced workers or companies.
So, in this regard, you must use a long and complex password that would be impossible to guess in a reasonable time.
Here are other tips:
- Institutions should implement a secondary authentication method when people log into accounts and machines
- One must use a different password per account
- Passwords shouldn’t be entered or stored where someone could see them
When we talk of endpoints, we refer to any remote computing device like a phone, desktop, or laptop that communicates with a network. In this regard, preventing data theft means that people should take immense individual care with the appliances they interact with.
- Ensuring that users are educated
- Having accurate visibility of all devices connected to a network
- Maintaining the latest operating and security software on each endpoint
- Implementing a zero-trust approach to user privileges to forbid unwanted access
- Ensuring that workstations do not have unattended devices like USB drives, printers, cameras, etc.
- Remedying missing and infected machines as soon as possible
Take care when talking to others
Data can also spill from a verbal conversation. So, you should not talk about sensitive matters where an unwelcome party may hear you.
Keep an eye on ex-workers
It’s common for a data breach today to happen with past employees of a company. This is because former staff will have plenty of useful or valuable information even after exiting. One solution here is to have a restrictive covenant clause in contracts.
This aims to prevent ex-employees from temporarily working with certain clients linked to the business. Or it could stop that person from disclosing confidential material about their former employer.
Data breach risk factors
Even if someone has tiny bits of information, combined with other identifiers like race and age, it’s easy to piece a complete profile on their target. Thus, the risks of data breaches are severe.
For individuals, it can result in any or a combination of the following:
- Physical violations
- Loss of control over personal information
- Financial loss
- Identity theft
For businesses, clients have begun taking an interest in their cybersecurity practices. This factor can become a deal breaker in them using a company’s product or service.
Like individuals, the consequences of data breaches are damaging and can be more expensive:
- Government fines
- Information security investigations
- PR and attorney costs
- Higher insurance premiums
- Disruptions to daily operations
- Customer breach notifications
- Stock price declines (if the company is exchange-listed)
- Loss of intellectual property
- Reduced customer relationships
- Damage to brand image or reputation
Still, there are plenty of solutions to data breaches. One element is in how you share certain information. Many people like using email for this purpose. However, it’s not the safest option since most email clients are not encrypted.
Still, we use email because it’s convenient and accessible. Fortunately, Duckist.com retains these elements while being secure. You can share secret conversations, files, and passwords with encryption via this secure web based tool.
What’s more, the link of your message has self-destruction to destroy the evidence. The link is designed to function once before it expires. So, even if an unwanted party accessed it later, it would not work again.
Many experts have labeled data infringements as problems of ‘epidemic proportions.’ This may not be far-fetched because data is a precious asset. Breaches have become a lot more common than most people think.
Still, as with any risk, what you don’t know becomes harmful. Fortunately, the many data breach solutions covered here should help individuals and businesses stay protected.