Data Leak vs. Data Breach | EasyDMARC

Data Leak vs. Data Breach

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Data leaks and data breaches aren’t new terms in the cybersecurity world. They’re similar, with many people using them interchangeably. Unless you’re a cybersecurity expert, it’s easy to confuse the two.

While both cyberthreats have some things in common, they’re not the same. To effectively protect your data, you need to know the risks involved, and this means having an in-depth understanding of a data breach vs. a data leak.

Knowing the difference is vital for data leak prevention. So let’s dive in. Keep reading to learn what a data leak is, what a data breach is, and the causes.

What is a Data Leak?

A data leak refers to the accidental (or intentional) exposure of information, either in transit or at rest. This cyber issue occurs internally and doesn’t require an actual attack. Data leakage can happen in different ways. 

Unauthorized access to a site, poor handling of sensitive information, or flaws or vulnerabilities in systems or policies can all result in a data leak breach. This can occur via offline gadgets like hard drives and flash drives, on servers or networks, or through the internet. 

These cybersecurity issues highlight the importance of data loss prevention. Data leakage can impact business operations negatively, cause financial losses, and ruin your corporate reputation.

What Causes a Data Leak?

Data leakage can occur in several ways, generally grouped into two primary categories: Human error and overlooked vulnerabilities. Intentional data leaks are also possible, usually from a disgruntled employee or whistleblower.

Overlooked Vulnerabilities

In cybersecurity, a vulnerability is a weakness that cybercriminals exploit to compromise systems or gain unauthorized access to sensitive information. When these overlooked susceptibilities are leveraged, business operations can endure severe damage. Some vulnerabilities that can cause a data leak include:

  • Weak security policies
  • Misconfigured firewalls
  • Open-source vulnerabilities
  • Developer errors
  • Poor vendor security policies
  • Unpatched flaws or exposures
  • Human Error

Humans are the weakest link in every cybersecurity strategy plan. They are vulnerable, so social engineers can come up with confusing stories to trick employees into revealing sensitive information. 

One of the most common attack vectors is phishing, where a legitimate-looking email with a malicious link or attachment is presented to the target. Once the victim clicks the link or opens the infected file, malware downloads onto the system. 

Spoofed websites are another common method. Typically, attackers trick victims into divulging sensitive information like login credentials by directing them to a fake, genuine-looking website.

Even if it’s just your email address or username exposed in a data leak, cybercriminals can still compromise or breach your system. They can combine this info with password-guessing tactics like a dictionary attack or brute force attack. More often than not, data leaks happen due to careless behavior, such as using weak passwords, unsecured networks, or unprotected devices.

What is a Data Breach?

In contrast, a data breach is an event that intentionally exposes secret or confidential information due to a cyberattack. Data breaches can result in massive damages that might cost a fortune. 

According to the recent data breach report from IBM and Ponemon Institute, the average cost of a data breach in 2021 was $4.24 million, a 10% increase from 2019’s average cost, being $3.86 million. Unlike data leaks that occur internally, data breaches happen due to an external force. 

What Causes a Data Breach?

As mentioned, a data breach happens due to external factors, which can come in various forms. Below are some common causes of data breaches. 

  • Malware: Malicious software aiming to exploit or compromise organizations’ networks. Some popular malware types include worms, ransomware, viruses, and trojans. Cybercriminals use malware to steal confidential data for financial gain.
  • Social Engineering: According to Purplesec, 98% of cyberattacks depend on social engineering. It’s a tactic used by hackers to lure victims into providing access to a restricted area or sensitive information. 

Common social engineering techniques include whaling, phishing, spear phishing, and scareware. One of the best ways to counter social engineering attacks is by implementing email security best practices

  • Hacking: This is an attempt to exploit system vulnerabilities to access sensitive information. It involves a series of attack vectors, including SQL injections, DDoS attacks, and man-in-the-middle attacks.

Data Breach vs. Data Leak: Comparison

One of the main differences between a data leak vs. a data breach lies in its mode of occurrence. Data leaks happen from the inside to the outside world, while a data breach is vice versa (outside-in). 

While data leakage typically occurs when an organization unknowingly (or intentionally) exposes sensitive information, a data breach is due to a cyber actor’s effort to compromise the company’s network and data.

Another difference between the two cybersecurity issues is the level of exposure. In the case of data leaks, it’s impossible to determine when or how long your data has been exposed. Conversely, you can be sure your system has been compromised in a data breach attack. That said, data leaks can lead to a data breach. If a hacker gets hold of sensitive data leak information, they can use it to plan a successful data breach.

Final Thoughts

Understanding the definition and causes of a data leak vs. a data breach is one of the first ways to prevent data loss. While both terms are similar, there are slight differences to consider for proper data protection. 

A data leak usually occurs accidentally from within an organization, while a data breach is an attempt made by cyber criminals to compromise your network or steal your sensitive data. 

Whether your information is exposed due to a data breach or data leak, severe damage is the end result if proper measures aren’t taken.

Freelance Writer, Cybersecurity Enthusiast
Jamiu has over 3 years of experience as a freelance writer, specializing in travel, IT, cybersecurity blog articles and website content.


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