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A data breach is an event that exposes confidential, private, or sensitive information to unauthorized individuals. It can occur due to accidental incidents or deliberate actions, and its consequences can range from financial losses to reputational damage and legal consequences.

Regardless of its origins, a data breach equips cybercriminals with ammunition for financial gain, whether through selling stolen data or deploying it as part of a broader cyberattack. Typically, a data breach involves compromising information like bank account details, credit card numbers, personal health records, and login credentials for email accounts and social media platforms. You need an incident response plan to protect your private information, customer data, and other mission-critical intellectual property.

Who doesn't enjoy a good cyber crisis? Let’s explore four essential strategies to keep your data as secure as a squirrel hoarding acorns.

What Is A Data Breach?

A data breach involves unauthorized access to confidential information, ranging from customer contact details to closely guarded trade secrets, like the Colonel's secret recipe of 11 herbs and spices. The sheer volume of vulnerable data can seem staggering, with the global information market moving a whopping 175 zettabytes of data annually.

Truth be told, not all that data holds equal value. While your aunt’s dog pictures are undeniably charming, they don't hold a candle to the criticality of safeguarding something like your credit card number, which, unfortunately, is far easier to steal than those adorable dog snapshots.

Types Of Data Breaches

Individual hackers, mischievous kids, lone wolf identity thieves, terrorists, political parties, unethical marketers, rival superpowers, and possibly even space aliens want access to data. They employ various tactics to breach data security, including the following: 

  • Stolen Information: There are many ways to steal information, from accessing secure databases on private servers to rummaging around in the trash outside your office. All of it is valuable, and all of it is a target.
  • Ransomware: In a ransomware attack, cybercriminals infiltrate an organization's systems and encrypt its data, making it inaccessible to the victim. They then demand a ransom payment, typically in cryptocurrency, in exchange for the decryption key. Failure to pay may result in permanent data loss or the exposure of sensitive information, amplifying the financial and reputational damage of a data breach.
  • Password Guessing: Don’t make your password “1234” or, even worse, “password.” A whole genre of hacking involves buying a computer with a powerful processor and loading a dictionary program to brute force password guesses. 
  • Recording keystrokes: There are a bunch of programs that can secretly record your keystrokes and transmit them to a third party for analysis. If you have one of these bugs and use a keyboard to input your password or other credentials, that goes to the hacker, and someday, you're locked out of your own accounts.
  • Phishing: Phishing attacks occur when someone pretends to be a legitimate contact only to trick you into giving up private data. During the 2016 presidential race, some unknown scalawag tricked Clinton Campaign manager John Podesta into "changing his Google password" with a fake email. Guess what happened after that.
  • Viruses and malware: Some hackers are more vandals than thieves. If they can't steal your data, they'll spoil it and wreck years of research for the sheer thrill of it. Or to derail your country's nuclear program, whichever.
  • Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS): DDoS attacks use numerous computers to repeatedly call on a website or data host, sometimes with thousands of queries a second. The idea is to overwhelm your ability to serve legitimate traffic and burn up your bandwidth. The most significant attack of this type happened in October 2023, when Google Cloud slapped down a 398 million rps assault. For context, that's like taking all of Wikipedia's web traffic for a month and compressing it into two minutes. (This one failed because Google is apparently the Singularity we've been afraid of all these years.)

What Can Attackers Do With Stolen Data?

When cybercriminals successfully breach your organization's security and gain access to sensitive data, the consequences can be far-reaching and devastating. Here are some of the most common ways attackers leverage stolen data:

  • Identity Theft: With personal information like names, addresses, Social Security numbers, and more, attackers can assume someone's identity for fraudulent activities, such as opening credit accounts or conducting financial transactions in the victim's name.
  • Corporate Espionage: Competing businesses or foreign entities may seek a competitive advantage by stealing sensitive corporate data, such as proprietary technologies, product designs, or strategic plans.
  • Data Monetization: Some cybercriminals aim to profit directly from stolen data by selling it on the dark web or other underground markets, where interested parties may purchase it for various illicit purposes.

Understanding these potential outcomes of a data breach underscores the importance of implementing robust security measures to prevent such incidents.

How To Prevent Data Breach Incidents

A successful data breach can lead to the compromise of valuable corporate intellectual property, customer data, or other sensitive information. However, organizations can mitigate this risk by implementing these five best practices:

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Establish Clear Policies and Procedures

Most data breaches involve trusted insiders who don't intend harm but may be negligent or unaware of security policies. To prevent accidental breaches, it's crucial to communicate and enforce corporate security policies effectively. All employees, contractors, and trusted insiders should sign confidentiality agreements, ensuring everyone accessing sensitive data understands its use and protection.

Secure Hiring and Termination Procedures

Onboarding and offboarding processes present significant risks to data security. New employees are granted access to corporate resources, determining their risk to the company. Proper onboarding and hiring procedures tailor access to individual roles, while thorough offboarding ensures departing employees don't take sensitive data.

Monitor Access and Activity

Achieving visibility into data usage and movement is challenging for many organizations. Automated tools are essential to manage data breach risks effectively. These solutions discover, map, and track assets across the entire network infrastructure, providing critical insights into how corporate systems are used, and data flows, enabling early detection and prevention of potential breaches.

Implement Data Security at the Endpoint

With the rise of remote work, perimeter-focused data loss prevention (DLP) solutions are insufficient. Employees working remotely may directly connect to the Internet, potentially exposing sensitive data. Managing breach risks in distributed environments requires DLP solutions that secure remote users' devices, enabling IT staff to monitor data leaving the organization, all while complying with defined data protection rules.

Use Data Breach Prevention Tools

Sensitive corporate data can be compromised through various means, including unauthorized cloud uploads, malware, and phishing attacks. Data breach prevention tools like cybersecurity software solutions are indispensable for maintaining control over sensitive data. These solutions ensure secure data storage, monitor access and usage, and block exfiltration attempts, providing comprehensive protection against potential breaches.

By implementing these best practices, organizations can significantly enhance their ability to prevent data breaches and protect their most valuable assets.

The Cost Of A Data Breach To SaaS Companies

Data breaches go beyond pilfering a few transaction records or trade secrets. The potential for harm is colossal. Here is a quick rundown on what a data breach can potentially cost your enterprise:

  • Money: Sometimes, it really is just cash. A hacker who cracks your bank account is there for the money, and you might not be covered for total financial losses.
  • Reputation: People entrust you with their valuable data, so when it's revealed that this trust was misplaced, you can anticipate a gradual erosion of customer confidence. Consider the infamous 2013 incident with Target, where an unidentified perpetrator successfully stole 40 million credit and debit records, along with 70 million customer records.
  • Internal costs: You will spend money recovering from a breach, even if it's just lost time mitigating the crisis. 
  • Regulatory penalties: Don't be the financial institution that has to report a security breach to federal financial information regulators. Western countries impose strict requirements on financial institutions for protecting sensitive banking and confidential information, and a sufficiently egregious breach could see civil and criminal penalties handed out.

Data Breach Security Incidents And Lessons Learned: 

Unauthorized access attempts happen to seemingly untouchable organizations, including:

  • Equifax (2017): This breach compromised the credit data of over 143 million people, nearly half of the American population. In 2020, the Justice Department indicted four members of the Chinese PLA with pulling the heist, which saw dozens of servers running over 9,000 queries on Equifax to compress and steal Social Security numbers, home addresses, and other personally identifiable information, which was then sent to China. 

Lesson Learned: Data breaches can be enormous, and no system is foolproof.

  • Yahoo (2013-16): This one is embarrassing. For over three years, Russian hackers had unrestricted access to Yahoo users' sensitive data. They used it to access names and email addresses, phone numbers, birth dates, passwords (which many of us reuse on multiple sites), private event calendars, and your security questions. 

Lesson Learned: Breaches can go on for years, and it takes multiple sweeps to catch sophisticated scams.

  • Microsoft (2021): In January 2021, Chinese cybercriminals at Hafnium used vulnerabilities in Microsoft email servers to access the private servers of more than 60,000 business clients. This hack is ongoing because Hafnium can still access the local servers of any target that hasn't been updated with the latest security patch. 

Lesson Learned: Move everything to the cloud and keep your antivirus software and cybersecurity patches up to date with automatic software updates.

Assessing Your Current Data Security Posture

If you're the CTO of a company with more than 20 bucks' worth of data in the shed, we hope we've scared you. This is serious stuff – and you may be tested by hackers with resources to rival a Bond villain.

Tools and Techniques for Risk Assessment

If you're going to get serious about your data security, you need serious tools. In the past, security threat assessments were partly educated guesswork. Today, tools like factor analysis of information risk (FAIR) make much more specific and actionable risk assessments for you. FAIR methodology expresses, in quantifiable dollar values, what your exposure is and helps guide mitigation strategies with minimal assumptions about current threats of unauthorized access.

Identifying Vulnerabilities in Your SaaS Infrastructure

No network is 100% safe from hacking. Fixes you make to one set of vulnerabilities inevitably open other weaknesses, making good security a risk-balancing approach at best. In the Microsoft example from above, a simple misconfiguration lets the malevolent parties in. Inadequate access controls are primarily to blame for the Yahoo leak. In all cases, you have to perform regular sweeps and assessments based on known current threats to stay current on your security measures.

Creating a Response Plan for Potential Data Breaches

Response plans are about more than just reacting to ongoing threats. They're also core to your mitigation strategy. Meet with key players and assemble risk plans for the most likely threats, as identified by your FAIR analysis. As a reminder, the steps to response planning are:

  1. Preparation
  2. Identification
  3. Containment
  4. Eradication
  5. Recovery

Building a Culture of Security Across the Company

Gmail boasts robust security features, yet the Podesta leak serves as a poignant reminder that even with advanced safeguards, vulnerabilities can emerge when non-technical employees in pivotal roles fall victim to social engineering tactics. 

Build a culture of security for non-technical workers and train employees on basic security stuff, such as the importance of strong passwords and vigilance against unauthorized access attempts, particularly those via social media, while emphasizing the crucial role of multifactor authentication.

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The battle against cyber threats is ongoing, and staying informed is key. CTOs are critical players in controlling the risk of a data breach. When it comes to data breaches, knowledge isn't just power; it's your digital armor. Don't miss out on the latest insights, tips, and updates on data security. Subscribe to our newsletter to keep up with the latest. (Relax, this isn't an elaborate phishing scam…)

FAQs

How Often Should We Conduct Security Audits?

Both big and small businesses working with personal data should audit their security at least twice a year.

What Are the First Steps After Detecting a Breach?

The first step is to identify which network components have been compromised and quarantine them immediately. Then you can begin the recovery process.

How Can We Balance Security with User Convenience?

Every company has to strike a balance between security systems that are hardened against breaches and easy enough to use. Browse the available security packages, and pick one that strikes the right balance for you.

Katie Sanders
By Katie Sanders

As a data-driven content strategist, editor, writer, and community steward, Katie helps technical leaders win at work. Her 14 years of experience in the tech space makes her well-rounded to provide technical audiences with expert insights and practical advice through Q&As, Thought Leadership, Ebooks, etc.