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Common causes of data leaks & how to prevent them

Learn about the common causes of data leaks and how to prevent them with the help of IS Decisions. Protect your data and avoid costly breaches.

Updated November 7, 2023
Common causes of data leaks & how to prevent them

We all want to feel confident that our critical data isn’t falling into the wrong hands. But as data becomes currency, cyber attacks on sensitive information are all the more common. In 2022, more than 400 million U.S. citizens were affected by data breaches.

Data leakage can come from cyberattacks, human error, or external threats. The good news is that it’s possible to mitigate all three with a blend of people, processes, and technology.

Our data leakage prevention tips will help strengthen your security posture and protect critical systems. But first things first what causes data exposure?

Common causes of data leaks

Confidential data often turns a pretty penny on the black market. That’s why exposing it is such a common motivator for cybercriminals using attacks like ransomware or phishing. But leaks also frequently come from honest employee mistakes rooted in a lack of education.

Below, we list some of the most common causes of data leaks.

Cyber attacks

Many cyber attacks target vulnerabilities in access controls. A zero-trust security model, wherein all end-users are subject to authentication, can prevent common data security attacks:

  • Malware: Hackers find vulnerabilities in a system’s security and inject malicious code to perform functions such as stealing sensitive data.

  • Password attacks: Hacks such as “password spraying” involve testing multiple combinations to expose reused or weak passwords and gain unauthorized access.

  • Phishing: A phishing attack encourages an end-user to give away confidential information or open a dangerous attachment, for example, through spoof emails.

  • Ransomware: Ransomware is a form of malware that either locks or threatens to expose different types of data until a ransom is paid, potentially causing millions of dollars in financial losses.

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) adds a second verification stage to user access off and on-premises, thwarting many of these threats.

Human error

The World Economic Forum says that up to 95% of all cyber security issues stem from human error. This could be anything as simple as password reuse and carelessness to poor security policies.

Training in regulatory compliance, such as PCI-DSS, as well as reviewing current best practices, can prevent breaches from happening in the first place. Updating policies regularly in line with changing threats for example, if a new phishing technique becomes more widely used is a key part of this.

Security teams also need to review user access controls regularly and make sure only authorized teams can view sensitive files.

IT teams should also be aware of changing legislation, for example, around data protection. Information security is a genuine business risk and should be treated as such. Modifying processes can influence user behavior and give everybody shared responsibility.

Insider threats

Insider threats can come from many sources. Disgruntled employees may attempt data exfiltration to use to their advantage after leaving a role, or even steal trade secrets and other intellectual property. On the other hand, a current employee acting carelessly can also cause untold damage.

Verifying user identity across all logins can limit unauthorized user access. Employees should also be encouraged (as always…) to look at their password strength. Passwords alone will not keep organizational data safe, but they should at least be strong and unique.

Likewise, checking user access can ensure that no ex-employees or other stakeholders can find unauthorized sensitive information. Organizations should monitor their internal systems and user behavior for unusual activity.

Physical threats

Sensitive information doesn’t have to be leaked remotely. Organizations should also monitor the security of their physical sites, which could be vulnerable to:

  • Vandalism

  • Theft

  • Unauthorized access, for example, overcoming entry defenses

On top of authorization best practices, you should encrypt information wherever possible. This could protect data as a last resort, should a physical device or virtual storage fall into the wrong hands.

Actionable data leak prevention strategies

Some of the best data loss prevention solutions lie in processes. Thinking back to that combination of people, processes, and tech, you can combine all three to protect critical data.

Use strong passwords

Strong passwords are far more challenging to brute force that much is obvious. But it’s worth reminding users that using details such as easily sourced information or reused credentials allows attackers an easy route into accounts.

To protect systems, enforce minimum complexity policies. Passwords should be at least eight letters long, with lower and upper case, numbers, and special characters.

Use two-factor authentication (2FA)

MFA often also known as 2FA, offers an added layer of protection besides passwords alone. This means users have to use an additional form of verification beyond login credentials, such as a TOTP code or a hardware token.

Solutions like UserLock offer various MFA methods, customizable for each organization’s unique security needs.

Educate employees

A solid DLP strategy (data leak prevention strategy) lies in educating people. This could be from detecting phishing emails to showing them how to use MFA tools.

Training should be industry-specific. For example, following HIPAA compliance guidelines in the healthcare sector. But it’s also helpful to cover generic good practices, from being mindful of using unsecured connections for work activity to the proper handling of sensitive data.

Above all, training should be regular, with records taken to make sure all employees are up to date.

Use encryption

Encryption is essential to stop hackers from using sensitive data. A good example is using SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) protocol transfers when transmitting sensitive data, establishing an encrypted link between server and end-user, rendering the data unreadable to outside eyes.

Implement access controls

Not all information is created equal. And not all users need access to all information. As such, different users should have different access privileges. Every time a new user is onboarded, security teams should set the appropriate access controls for a user’s level of risk.

Audit and review access logs

Data leakage prevention is not a “set and forget” task. It needs constant monitoring, including checks as to which users can access which data networks. UserLock helps to audit and monitor user access to ensure all data is only being accessed by the right people.

Why it’s important to detect leaks as soon as possible

The right DLP software and processes can prevent threats before they turn into a genuine business risk. Using security tools also gives better system visibility, identifying potential malicious traffic before it causes critical issues.

Minimize damage

Strong cybersecurity minimizes both physical and digital damage, ensuring data availability and integrity. Ransomware attacks, for example, aim to steal and potentially leak critical data, which could lessen competitive advantage, bring legal issues, or incur huge costs.

In 2023, the average cost of a ransomware attack was $5.13 million, not including the actual ransom payment. That's an increase of 13% from the average cost of a ransomware attack in 2022.

Prevent further leaks and breaches

Getting the IT team involved in day-to day preventative monitoring is costly and time-consuming. Automated security solutions such as FileAudit monitor everything from on-premise Active Directory environments to cloud storage, and send alerts when abnormal activity is detected.

These automatic responses can help protect data under threat before it becomes a full-blown breach.

Identify and fix causes

Cyberattacks are damaging, and their consequences can be long-lasting. But if a cyber attack does occur, organizations must also treat them as a lesson in improved security.

If a breach occurs, look at the cause and plan to prevent similar attacks in future. You might need to review access controls for data storage or increase login security. Prevention is always better than the cure.

Protect employees and clients

According to Gartner, one of the biggest concerns for CISOs is that a data breach will affect their job security. Data leaks can affect everybody in an organization, however – from revealing trade secrets to publishing individuals’ confidential information.

Robust protections also promote trust. Service providers can assure their clients that information, such as credit card numbers or health data, is kept safe. By monitoring real-time activity and implementing access controls, you can mitigate security threats.

Meet regulatory requirements

Adhering to legal and regulatory requirements will keep businesses safe while avoiding fines. For example, penalties for breaking GDPR can be as high as 20 million euros ($22 million) or 4% of a company’s global turnover.

There may also be regulatory compliance for your specific industry, such as HIPAA in the healthcare sector. It’s important to keep records of data protections, audits, and any incidents.

Why data leakage prevention is important

From sharing passwords to insufficient access controls, data leaks are often traceable to human error. Any endpoint, in the hands of either an insider or outside threat, could be vulnerable without the right strategy, technology, and training in place.

It’s important to consider the whole range of possible vulnerabilities to prevent data leakage. These could be a lack of training among employees, weak passwords, or mismanaged security access. Strong DLP policies will cover:

  • People: Regular recorded training reviews on cybersecurity and best practices.

  • Processes: Rules and regulations for device management and data access.

  • Technology: Security tools such as UserLock and FileAudit monitoring software that help prevent unauthorized system access, even when mistakes happen.

With data leakage prevention strategies in place, you can minimize the risk of financial loss and reputational damage.

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