Data leakage is an incident in which sensitive data or information is – accidentally or intentionally – exposed through the internet, physically, or in any other form. It may include exposing laptops, computers, or hard disk drives. It is a situation in which a cybercriminal gets unauthorised access to data that is sensitive.
Some people use the terms data leaks and data breaches interchangeably but they are different. However, all of them involve a form of data exposure. A data leak does not necessarily require a cyber attack to occur but it occurs as a result of poor data security practices that may lead to an accidental or intentional exposure by an individual. A data breach on the other hand happens after a successful cyber attack can get hold of sensitive information.
If a hacker identifies any form of data leak, they could use the exposed data to plan a cyber attack against the exposed company. This is why companies need to identify any data leakage and remediate it before it is discovered by criminals who may exploit it. This reduces the chances of a data breach occurring.
Many companies have adopted the use of cloud services which may potentially be exposed to data leakage. One common form of data leakage that involve the cloud is known as cloud leak. This is when cloud storage service providers like Amazon Web Services (S3) exposes users’ sensitive data to the public or the internet in general. Attackers might exploit a vulnerability in AWS, S3. If there is any security flaw and the users have enabled some permissions that favour it, then their devices or systems are exploited.
It is often difficult to know if data was accessed once a data exposure or a data leakage happens. Attackers may look for trade secrets, confidential data, customer data, source code, or even personal data in the victims’ systems for several malicious reasons including corporate spying.
Data leaks are mostly caused by minor errors but they lead to potential financial, reputational, regulatory, and legal damage. It is important for business owners to note that although cloud computing and its services offer great advantages over on-premise IT, they also carry along with new cybersecurity risks that could result in major data leakages and breaches.
What Cyber Criminals Look for in Data Leakages
Most cybercriminals are always looking for personally identifiable information when data is exposed. Such information includes credit card numbers, social security numbers, and other forms of personal data that could lead to identity theft.
Information like a spouse’s name could be a target. Hackers also target protected health information or information created by health care providers which relates to the past, present, or future health of an individual.
Here are some common types of data cyber criminals may be looking for;
1. Customer Information
This data is different in every company. However, there are common factors involved including;
- Activity information. Payment history, usage details, etc.
- Identity information. Phone number, passwords, and usernames, names, etc.
- Credit card information. CVV codes, card numbers, expiration dates e.tc.
Analytics reveal patterns, picture trends, and trajectories. They are important for many businesses and can be attractive to cyber criminals. Data from analytics can be a major risk to a business if it is not well secured. The data includes:
- Behavioral data. It is generated in response to a customer’s engagement with the business.
- Modeled data. It is used to analyse and define the requirements which are needed to support business processes. Modeled data is stored in the company’s database.
- Psychographic data. It is collected from consumers who purchase an item or a service from a business e.g. buying history, interests
3. Company Information
Corporate information is also useful to attackers. Some of it includes:
- Metrics. Projections, statistics about company performance, and any other data that feeds company indicators.
- Internal communications. Files giving details about company operations e.g. emails, memos.
- Strategy. Critical business information like roadmaps and business plans.
4. Trade Secrets
This is information that is critical and confidential to any business and it holds its ability to compete with others. It could be the most dangerous piece of information when leaked. Some of the trade secrets include:
- Software and code. Technology used for in-house purposes and use or product development.
- Designs, formulas, plans. Information and details about current or upcoming services or designs.
- Commercial methods. The market contacts of a business and its strategies.
Causes of Data Leaks
The most common causes of data leaks are:
- Extrusion by attackers. This might happen through using malware, phishing, or code injection to gain access to confidential and sensitive data.
- Insider threats. People within the company or other parties that have legitimate access to it systems (such contractors, vendors) who compromise their own or another user’s account and misuses their permission to move data outside the organisation.
- Negligent or unintentional data exposure. This happens when employees lose sensitive data to the public which provides open internet access.
Data Leakage Prevention
There are several important steps all companies should follow to prevent data leakage, these steps are:
1. Classifying data according to its level of sensitivity and value
Businesses should properly understand which data is safe to be freely shared or who exactly in the company should have access to it and where it is stored. Using data classification, all the data in your company should be organised into categories which will ensure easier protection by having different permission levels.
2. Proactively identifying and mitigating IT risks
Companies will never know if they are vulnerable to attacks if they don’t conduct regular cybersecurity risks assessments. Companies can rely on industry standards like the NIST framework to assess themselves, such frameworks have well-played procedures for assessment.
It is also recommended to engage cybersecurity experts like Kaesim Cybersecurity to conduct a risk assessment and provide advice on how to protect your business.
3. Protecting data according to its sensitivity and value
The NIST guidelines will help your business in deploying the right cybersecurity controls. Some of the best practices include;
a. Data access governance.
b. Data encryption.
c. Identity and access management.
d. User entity and behavior analytics (UEBA).
e. Change management and system auditing.
4. Training all employees on cybersecurity awareness and data prevention
Many data leaks and breaches are caused by employees ignoring cybersecurity procedures and rules. To reduce this risk, employees should be well trained in handling data to reduce the risk of making any mistake. All employees from all levels including executives and directors should be trained regularly.
5. Putting in place systems for timely data leakage detection
Having detection and prevention mechanisms can greatly help in avoiding and reducing the effects of a data leak. Cybersecurity teams in companies should have tools that raise alerts on any changes in configuration to critical entities of the system or suspicions behaviour. This will enable easier detection and mitigation by closing the security gap found. Detecting users copying company-sensitive data to their local machines will allow quick intervention before the affected data leaves the business premises.
6. Having a stable recovery model
Data leakage may happen despite all measures put in place. Companies should have a clear procedure for data recovery of any data that is suspected to be lost in a data leak. It is also crucial for the cybersecurity team to test policies and systems in place for the recovery of important data.
Companies should ensure their data storage mechanisms protect their data and work on ways of preventing data compromise. They should also ensure their systems, network security and all their assets are well configured, an example of this is through having security audits on the type of data that may experience data leakage. Companies should also understand that leaked data may be used for conducting data breaches.
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