Data leaks occur when sensitive data is unintentionally exposed from within an organization. Data leaks can refer to both the leakage of digital data, meaning anything that can be transmitted through the internet, as well as physical data, such as USB drives.
Continue reading to learn how data leaks happen, how serious they can be and how to prevent them from occurring.
Data Leak vs Data Breach
While the terms data leak and data breach are often used interchangeably, they do not mean the same thing. The main difference between a data leak and a data breach is that data leaks happen when sensitive data is exposed unintentionally, often due to a mistake, oversight or vulnerabilities, whereas data breaches occur when sensitive data is accessed, stolen or used without authorization by cybercriminals.
Data leaks usually occur accidentally and without malicious intent, unlike data breaches which happen intentionally. Think of data leaks and breaches as a home burglary. A data breach would be somebody forcefully forcing your front door open or breaking a window and then committing the burglary. A data leak on the other hand would be you forgetting to lock your door or having an extra set of keys under your front door mat, the first place an intruder would look. In both of these scenarios, your home gets burglarized but it’s the means of how it happens that is different.
How Data Leaks Happen
Data leaks can happen due to insecurely stored passwords, social engineering attacks and software vulnerabilities.
Insecurely storing passwords
Poor password practices, such as insecurely storing your passwords, can result in data leaks. Examples of insecurely storing passwords include storing them in spreadsheets or on sticky notes. When passwords are stored insecurely, data leaks can happen if the sticky note is misplaced or a spreadsheet is shared accidentally with the wrong individuals.
Social engineering attacks
Social engineering attacks like phishing and CEO fraud are also major causes of data leaks. Social engineering is when cybercriminals psychologically manipulate victims to do things or reveal sensitive information to them through email, text messages or phone calls. The cybercriminal will often pose as someone the victim knows like a friend, family member, coworker or boss. Because the victim believes they’re in contact with someone they know, they may send the cybercriminal sensitive data – resulting in a data leak.
While social engineering seems like it’s an external attack, this type of attack is only successful if the victim falls for it and hands over sensitive information. If they do hand over the sensitive information, the cybercriminal exploits the data leakage which results in a data breach.
A software vulnerability is when there is a flaw present in software code that can be exploited by cybercriminals. Cybercriminals exploit software vulnerabilities by using them to gain unauthorized access to networks, steal sensitive data and inject it with malware. Malware is malicious software that is used by cybercriminals for a variety of purposes, including to spy on users or track their keystrokes.
Bad actors take advantage of these software vulnerabilities when users do not immediately update their software when a new update becomes available, which can result in the leakage of data.
How Serious Are Data Leaks?
Data leaks can be extremely serious because they can lead to identity theft, data breaches and other targeted cyber attacks that can expose even more information. For organizations, data leaks can result in a tarnished reputation, significant monetary losses, legal liability and may also risk future business opportunities with partners or customers due to lack of trust.
Not to mention, data leaks can cause compliance issues for an organization, often resulting in hefty fines.
How To Prevent Data Leaks
Here are some of the ways individuals and organizations can prevent data leaks.
How individuals can prevent data leaks
Use strong, unique passwords: Every online account you have should be secured with strong passwords. Strong passwords are passwords that are at least 16 characters long and use a combination of upper and lowercase letters, numbers and symbols. It’s best to use a password generator when creating passwords to ensure they’re always long and complex.
Enable MFA on your online accounts: Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) is a security measure you can enable on most of your online accounts. MFA requires that you provide one or more forms of authentication in addition to your username and password. Even if your credentials were to be exposed in a data leak, MFA would prevent cybercriminals from being able to log in to your account because they would have to provide additional authentication, which they wouldn’t be able to do.
Learn to spot social engineering attacks: Social engineering attacks, like phishing, are common causes of data leaks, meaning you should learn to spot them to keep yourself protected. Some signs of social engineering you should look out for include sudden requests for sensitive information, pressure to respond quickly and threats of consequences if you don’t do what you’re told. The better you become at spotting social engineering, the less likely you’ll fall for this type of scam.
Keep software up to date: Software updates do more than just upgrade performance and add new features, they also patch existing security vulnerabilities. As soon as you see that a new update is available for your device’s Operating System (OS) or an application, update it right away. If possible, enable automatic updates so you don’t have to worry about your software being outdated.
How organizations can prevent data leaks
Implement the Principle of Least Privilege (PoLP): PoLP is a cybersecurity concept in which employees are only given access to the networks, accounts and data they need to do their jobs– and no more. Because human error is what often results in data leaks, it’s best that employees are only given the necessary amount of privileges they need for their particular role. Following PoLP, if an employee does make an error, only a limited amount of data would be leaked, in comparison to much more data if they had unnecessary, broader privileges.
Invest in a business password manager: A business password manager is a cybersecurity solution that aids employees in creating, managing and securely storing account passwords. Business password managers also give IT administrators better insight into employee password practices and allow them to enforce security policies such as the use of MFA. A business password manager can help organizations prevent data leaks since they help ensure that passwords are aligned with best practices and accounts are always secured.
Train employees on cybersecurity: The human element is the cause of 74% of breaches, which is why it’s crucial that employees are trained on cybersecurity best practices. Regularly train employees on common cyber threats, how to spot them and how to avoid falling for them. The more employees are aware of cybersecurity, the better trained they’ll be to avoid making errors that can result in data leaks.
Stay Protected From Data Leaks
Individuals and organizations can both suffer consequences from data leaks, making it important to take necessary steps to prevent them from happening. Taking steps towards preventing data leaks can not only help mitigate leakage from occurring but also improve your overall security posture – mitigating the risk of other cyber threats.
Start taking steps to prevent data leaks today by securing your online accounts – start a free 30-day personal trial or 14-day business trial of Keeper Password Manager today.