What is a Data Leak? | EasyDMARC

What is a Data Leak?

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If you’ve never asked yourself what a data leak is,” you’re sleeping on a serious cybersecurity issue. Malicious hackers exploit data leakage, resulting in anything from revenue loss and disruption in operations to legal penalties and expensive lawsuits.

Without proper security measures, a small loophole can result in data leakage, damaging your business reputation and exposing sensitive data. Both individuals and business owners must understand data leaks, causes, and ways to prevent data loss

But first, what is a data leak exactly?

What is Data Leakage?

Data leakage is when sensitive data is accidentally exposed to an external recipient or outside destination from within an organization. The data leak definition can refer to information transmitted physically or electronically. Data leakage can occur due to poor security protocols, unintentional loss of storage devices, or an organization’s present or past employees. More often than not, it happens as a result of human error. 

For example, an employee can unknowingly send a sensitive email to the wrong recipient, save data in public storage, or have sensitive information on unlocked devices like flash drives in public places. Data leaks can also occur due to software misconfiguration facilitating malicious access to secret information. A good example was the major Microsoft Power App data leak in 2021

Data Leak vs. Data Loss

Data leakage and data loss are often used interchangeably, but they differ. The causes of data loss vs. data leaks aren’t the same, either. When data is lost, it means the information is no longer accessible. That’s why data loss impacts your business severely, often causing irreparable harm to your trustworthiness, profit margins, and operations.

With data leaks,  threat actors can plan a successful cyberattack targeting a specific organization. 

This can also result in severe damage to business operations, corporate reputations, financial outcomes, and revenue. That’s why it’s essential to identify and remediate data leaks before they get into the wrong hands. 

Data Leak vs. Data Breach

Let’s discuss the difference between data leaks and data breaches to remove any form of confusion. Though these terms are related, there’s a slight difference. A data breach happens when cybercriminals bypass security protocols or launch successful attacks to compromise networks and systems. 

This results in the extraction, modification, and stealing of files, credentials, and other sensitive information. Data breaches are one of the major causes of data loss.

Unlike data breaches, data leaks don’t involve an attack and often don’t result in data loss. On the other hand, data breaches can incur complete data loss—as in ransomware attacks, where the attacker encrypts the victim’s files.

What are the Causes of a Data Leak?

The causes of data leaks vary, but understanding them can help protect your business. Below are some common causes of data leaks.

  • Operational gaps: When there are shortcomings like communication challenges, poor documentation, and lack of functional training in your IT operations, data in transit can be exposed to the public or malicious hackers. 
  • Process errors: Errors in data capture, editing, or coding can create loopholes, giving cybercriminals access to sensitive information. 
  • Poor cybersecurity awareness: When employees aren’t fully aware of the cyber risks posed by data leaks, they won’t know what preventive actions to take.

What do Attackers Look for in Data Leaks?

Attackers are always on the prowl for Personally Identifiable Information (PII), which includes social security numbers, credit card numbers, and confidential data. 

They also look for Protected Health Information (PHI), which is data developed by a healthcare provider. Once they get hold of this info, they can plan targeted attacks. Here’s a breakdown of what cybercriminals look for in data leaks:

  • Customer Data: This differs from company to company info and could include identity information like names, email addresses, phone numbers, and usernames. Activity information like browser history, payment or order history, and credit card information is also highly sought-after. 
  • Company Information: Attackers seek out company data like internal memos, performance statistics, roadmaps, financial records, employees’ contact records, projections, and critical business information. 
  • Industry and Company Secrets: This is arguably the most dangerous information to be exposed in a data leak. Data critical to business operations, such as designs, plans, formulae, software, code, and commercial methods, are all targeted by cybercriminals. 
  • Analytics: This can also be a risk vector if not adequately protected. It includes psychographic data, modeled data, and behavioral data.

Data Leak Types​​

There are different types o data leaks, so get familiar with them to avoid and mitigate the risks. Remember, data can be exfiltrated via internal and external sources. 

  • Accidental Leak: Not all data leaks are intended or malicious. More often than not, data leaks happen accidentally. For instance, an employee can unknowingly send an email containing confidential data to the wrong recipient.
  • Leak by a Frustrated Employee: Data can also be leaked by a disgruntled employee. Most sensitive information is leaked via cameras, printers, USB drives, or even dumpster diving. Unhappy staff members can decide to reveal confidential information to the public or a malicious attacker. 
  • External Communications with Malicious Intent: Organizations using social media and email communication are always at risk of malicious attacks, especially without adequate cybersecurity policies. Threat actors often target these mediums using phishing and malware like viruses, spyware, worms, etc.

How Can Data Leaks be Exploited?

Malicious actors exploit data leakage in various ways, and knowing them will give you an edge over cyber criminals. Let’s take a look:

  • Social Engineering: Threat actors use information garnered from data leaks to create trust with a victim and lure them into committing acts like fund transfers. Behavioral, modeled, and psychographic data leaks are often used by attackers to strengthen their social engineering tactics. 
  • Doxxing: Cybercriminals use confidential or secret data leaks to bully and exploit their victims. They can demand payment by threatening to expose the information to the public. Other reasons include politics, vendettas, and causing actual harm to people. 
  • Surveillance: Hackers use information, such as contact details or social media account info, to keep a close watch on their victims. This can be done to gather more information to plan a successful cyberattack. 
  • Intelligence: Cyberactors can also use data leaks to predict and shape opinions. For example, politicians can use this information to win votes. 
  • Disruption of Operations: Information from data leaks can also be used to compromise or hack network resources and disrupt operations.

Why are Data Leaks a Problem?

Data leaks can cause immense harm, such as financial loss, reputation damage, and even total business destruction. This section discusses how data leaks can be a problem.

  • Credit Card Fraud: Hackers use leaked information like CVV codes and credit card numbers to commit fraud. 
  • Extortion: Cybercriminals hold the victim’s information and then request ransom, such as in the case of ransomware. 
  • Dark Web Sales: Cybercriminals can also sell confidential or secret information on the dark web. These perpetrators find a vulnerable database that contains personal and credit card information to sell to spam, identity theft, or phishing attackers.
  • Decrease of Competitive Advantage: Business competitors can use data leaks of customer contacts and trade secrets to increase their edge over your company.

How to Prevent Data Leaks?

Organizations and individuals handle information differently from one another. In addition, there are some data laws, such as FERPA, HIPAA, or PCI DSS, that you must follow in the regulated information industry. Below are various ways to prevent data leaks. 

  • Monitor Third-Party Risk: Even if you don’t expose your customers’ data, your third-party vendors could easily leak this information. Always monitor third-party, fourth-party, and cybersecurity risks.
  • Automate Processes: Validation is challenging to monitor in a large organization. Use automated processes to ensure all cloud storage and data are secured. 
  • Do Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Testing: Simulate real-world attacks to identify any loopholes in your network and where data leakage might occur. 
  • Train Your Employees: Humans are the weakest link in the cybersecurity chain, and they’re easily manipulated. Train your employees on data handling, data breaches, data leakage, and data loss prevention adoption protocols. 
  • Plan the Recovery Process: There’s no 100% guaranteed security measure, so cyberattacks and data leaks are always possible. Implement a  contingency plan to recover from data leaks quickly and efficiently.
  • Defend Your Network: Employ different security measures to defend your network from attackers. This includes firewalls, network access control, an Intrusion detection system, and spam and web filters.

Data Protection Solutions

The data leak threat is real and can cause severe damage to business continuity. So it’s imperative to implement robust data protection solutions to mitigate the risks. 

  • Firewalls: Use firewalls to filter incoming and outgoing network traffic based on specific rules. This can block SQL injections and other threats.
  • User Rights Management: Implement user rights management to monitor privileged users’ data access and activities. As such, you can identify inappropriate, malicious, and excessively privileged users. 
  • Data Masking: This provides a fake but realistic version of your confidential data. It helps protect sensitive data while providing an alternative option when actual data isn’t needed— for instance, demos, employee training, and software testing
  • Data Encryption: Encrypting your data will render it useless for malicious or unauthorized users during a data leak. 
  • User Behavior Analysis: This creates a baseline data behavior, using artificial intelligence to detect abnormal activities in the network. 
  • Data Discovery and Classification: This solution helps organizations monitor and reveal data volume, context, or location in the cloud or on-premises. 
  • Database Activity Monitoring: Monitor data warehouses, relational databases, and crucial datasets to create real-time alerts on policy violations. 
  • Alert Prioritization: This is the use of AI to check security activities and prioritize the most important.

Final Thoughts

In a cyber world full of malicious access and information leakage, implementing a good data protection solution should be your top defense strategy. This article introduces data leaks, their causes, and data loss prevention’s importance. We discuss each section extensively in separate articles.

Content Team Lead | EasyDMARC
Hasmik talks about DMARC, email security, and cyberawareness. She finds joy in turning tough technical concepts into approachable and fun articles in plain language.


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