A data breach is an event that can severely impair your company’s ability to operate normally. It can happen instantly, seemingly out of the blue. Data loss is a major issue that affects businesses, corporations, government entities, and individuals. There are a lot of bad actors online looking to exploit any weaknesses in your defenses. Most of them have tools to exploit your lack of security, be it with malware, spam, spoofing, or other means of social engineering.
In today’s world, not many people are aware of the daily dangers lurking online. Informed users have a better chance of dealing with these attacks since they know how to identify them.
Mitigating a data breach requires some prep work on your end. In the following lines, you’ll discover what a data breach is, why it’s so expensive, the different types, and preventative measures.
What is a Data Breach?
First things first: What is a data breach? In simple terms, it’s the exposure, transmission, and use of confidential, sensitive, or protected data by an unauthorized person or entity.
A data breach can affect individuals, small businesses, multinational corporations, and government institutions. It’s a dangerous attack that can expose everything from credit card details and health records to intellectual property, trade secrets, and high-level communications.
What are the Methods of a Data breach?
Data breach attacks require planning and strategy. The worst events are usually a direct result of cyberattacks. Most of these assaults require target research to ensure successful incursions. It’s one of the reasons why data breaches keep happening.
Cyber actors have their pick regarding cyberattacks, but some of the most popular attack methods include phishing, malware, and brute force attacks. Here’s how they work:
- Phishing: A social engineering technique designed to trick victims and execute a data breach. Cyber actors pose as trusted entities and personnel to access confidential data such as login information, passwords, etc.
- Malware: An attack that targets networks, systems, and devices by planting malicious software. Ongoing security patches are often available to “patch” new vulnerabilities. Knowing how to detect a data breach means keeping your devices and software updated.
- Brute force attacks: As the name implies, this data breach attack typically involves automated software to crack passwords, grant access to accounts, and ultimately breach delicate data. That said, many platforms are working to alert users of abnormal account activity or login attempts.
Any individual, business, corporation, or government institution can become the target of a data breach. However, cybercriminals typically target personnel who don’t follow basic security protocols.
Malicious cyber actors know who they are because they follow a pattern of conduct revealing these vulnerabilities. Once a hacker gets a relatively good idea of the weakest spots in your security, they can target the people likely to fall for their scams. This, in turn, helps them execute successful data breaches.
Understanding how to avoid data breaches includes prevention awareness. Employees must enforce data protection measures and protocols in their daily tasks. Making sure they know how hackers operate is also beneficial. Most cyber attackers follow specific phases as described below:
- Target Research
In this phase, the attacker takes their time to understand their potential target and find any exploitable weaknesses: Employees, networks, platforms, etc. This may involve online stalking, spyware, and even honeypot traps to extract information about a company, its employees, and its systems.
- Vulnerability Identification
In the next phase, cyber actors identify and narrow down specific vulnerabilities, mapping out weak points to gain unauthorized access to your system.
Once the attacker understands a software weakness, system vulnerability, or an employee’s habits, it’s time to choose a strategy to deliver the payload. They can use phishing, spoofing, SQL injections, trojan malware, a tailor-made computer worm—anything goes at this stage.
Cyber attackers can successfully enter your system via a social engineering attack exploiting the human factor or via a network-based attack, exploiting weak cybersecurity defenses.
- Data Extraction
Once inside your network or system, hackers can extract, copy, modify, or corrupt your company data—sometimes before you even know it. They may use this data to execute more severe data breach attacks, leak your information, or extort your company for financial gain.
Information Types Leaked During a Breach
When you deal with a data leak, a vast amount of information suddenly becomes vulnerable. Cyber attackers usually know exactly what they’re after. However, the most dangerous attacks you can face are those looking to create chaos. Hackers typically go for valuable information they can use or trade on the dark web.
The most commonly targeted data includes financial data, personal health information, and personally identifiable information. Your precious customer data can be sold to third parties with malicious intentions. With this information, criminals can mess with your company’s finances or expand their database of targets.
Your intellectual property is at risk too. A data breach can expose your company’s trade secrets, product specs, trade agreements, source code, etc. Remember that your data is valuable, but not all of it is necessary. Protecting sensitive information with solid backup protocols is crucial to avoid being compromised.
Consequences of a Data Breach
If your organization falls victim to a data breach attack, expect some severe consequences. Be prepared to deal with a data breach effectively, or customers, partners, and employees may lose all confidence in your brand in a worst-case scenario.
Why is a data breach so expensive? Well, it’s incredibly costly to position your business in a trustworthy light again. If the data breach affects the personal information of your customers or employees, many of them could be exposed to identity theft—the ramifications of which are far-reaching
Cyberattackers may even target your company to cause intentional financial harm (as opposed to collateral financial damage). It’s not impossible for unscrupulous competitors to employ such tactics. A data breach can also put a full stop to your operability. With business activity suspended, income streams dry up. If you face a ransomware attack, operations can cease until you pay hackers to restore access to your company data and systems.
Data breaches can make you lose face with your creditors or anyone willing to lend your company a credit line. When a data breach goes public, it ruins your reputation with existing customers and scares away any potential clients. Even those who deal with these events properly face longstanding consequences.
The products that make your company unique are no longer exclusive to your niche since your trade secrets can go public in the blink of an eye. If your company is exposed as an unreliable entity not capable of protecting its assets, cyber attackers may target you again.
Financial, Operational, and Productivity Costs
Dealing with a data breach is costly. It goes beyond the financial hit your company takes by losing productivity. You need to immediately respond to let everyone associated with you know how they’ve been affected by the data leak.
You’ll have to send breach alerts to customers and partners almost as soon as you hire a PR specialist team. They’ll help you mediate through the damages and save face in the public eye as much as possible You can expect to pay a hefty fine, too, depending on the damages. The legal consequences usually come after an investigation by a regulatory agency.
If your clients or business partners were affected by the data breach on your account, you have to hire a solid legal team, something that comes with a hefty price tag. You also need to hire a cybersecurity firm to help you understand why the breach happened and how to prevent any similar issues in the future. Then come the audits and the mending process on your end.
You’ll likely have to deal with most of these issues while still facing operational disruptions. An extended disruption affects your income and your company’s value if it’s public. You need to focus on restarting operations as soon as possible since your shareholders could also sue for damages.
Even if you manage to navigate the sea of problems brought by a data breach, you still have to deal with the backlash it leaves behind. A data breach can tarnish the name of your company beyond repair. Your vendors and clients will tread lightly when doing business with you. Sometimes they’ll go with your competitors.
The most damaging aspect can be the loss of your trade secrets. If you provide something unique like a patented product, your product specs can be leaked to the public/ Your competitors can take advantage of the data breach to up their game. Lastly, expect insurance costs to increase, with companies charging a premium for their services since you’ll be viewed as a risky venture.
How Can I Prevent Data Breaches?
When people wonder why data breaches keep happening, most of them don’t realize their power to prevent these events. Companies and individuals can take simple actions to secure their data while keeping cyber actors at bay. Here are some of the best practices to safeguard your data as an individual or business owner:
Best Practices for Individuals
- Use Strong Passwords: Use a combination of words, upper and lower cases, and special characters to strengthen your passwords.
- Update Your Software Frequently: Don’t skip security patches of your operative systems, software, or antivirus updates.
- Monitor Financial Accounts and Credit Scores: Keep close tabs on everything related to your finances and ensure optimal security when using any online financial services.
- Store Files Securely: Don’t store everything in the cloud. Keep offline backups. Classify your data and update your backups frequently.
- Identify Fake Social Media Accounts and Delete: Don’t let anybody impersonate you, your brand, or your employees online. Make sure they report these incidents immediately.
- Use a VPN: A virtual private network is the best tool you can use to mask your online activities.
- Setup an Antivirus on Your Devices: Keep a strong antivirus that detects any anomaly on your network and devices.
Best Practices for Businesses
- Follow Government Requirements Regarding Data: Regularly research applicable data regulations and make sure your company remains compliant.
- Don’t Collect and Store More Information than Needed: Sort out the data you collect, store what you need, and destroy what you don’t.
- Train Employees: Employee awareness is the best preventive measure to avoid data breaches.
- Protect Assets with Strong Passwords: Use strong passwords, a trusted password manager, and multi-factor authentication.
- Encrypt Your Data: Data encryption makes things harder for hackers. They can’t take what they don’t understand.
- Conduct Frequent Vulnerability Assessments: Ongoing penetration testing and vulnerability assessments help identify weaknesses in your network and systems before hackers have a chance to exploit them.
Steps After a Data Breach
If you become a victim of a company’s data breach, not everything is lost. Most organizations have protocols to help secure your account in case of identity theft. Others can help you gain access to your data after confirming your identity. Here are some steps to follow if you’re affected by a data breach:
As a private individual, you need to communicate with your bank or financial agent to gain access to your accounts. You’ll likely have to change all details about the account and freeze your credit reports. If your social security number has been leaked, you may have to change it. Don’t forget to reset all your usernames and passwords.
As a business, you have more work to do to regain complete control of your company after a data breach. Find out the cause of the data breach and who detected it. You’ll also need to find and fix all vulnerabilities that resulted in the attack.
Secure your office space and ensure everyone works and stays where they’re supposed to. Keep a cool head, and remember to notify all affected parties and the relevant agencies.
Common Sources of Security Breaches
Knowing how to avoid data breaches means looking at the common causes of why they happen in the first place. One of the main reasons is weak password hygiene. Most people use something simple, like a date or name, which is just not enough. Cybercrimes continue to evolve and increase, especially post-pandemic, where remote working has become the norm.
There are other reasons, such as built-in vulnerabilities and backdoors in most apps and software, that cyberattackers can exploit. Social engineering scams are another potential cause, this time exploiting the human factor.
Hackers also use various malware types, like ransomware, to execute data breaches. Education and effective prevention methods are the only way to fight such attacks. Cybercriminals will always target those who lack the awareness to identify them. Companies can become data breach victims due to poor permissions management, unaware employees, or insiders looking to harm the company.
The threat of a data breach is very real, and it cannot be underestimated at any stage. No matter the size of your business, there’s a lot you can do to prevent data leaks and keep your sensitive company data safe. Take a cue from everything we’ve discussed here. Update your preventive measures and protocols to avoid data breaches and the resulting consequences.
Ask the hard questions: Are your employees aware of data breaches? Do they know how they can affect your company? Does everyone working for you understand how to prevent cyberattacks? Keep communication open with all team members, regularly address any security issues, and adopt cyber and email security best practices.