Most Common Causes of Data Breach

A data breach is one of the biggest nightmares any business can face. It can cause significant data downtime, huge financial costs, break trust with your customers and business partners, and overall seriously damage your company’s reputation.

If you want to minimize the risk of a data breach, you must first know what are the most common issues that could cause it.

According to Verizon’s 2020 Data Breach Investigations Report, 45% of data breaches featured hacking, social attacks and errors caused 22% of the breaches, while 17% of the breaches included malware. Moreover, 37% of all breaches involved stolen credentials.

Let’s go over these causes in detail and see what you can do to prevent them.


Out-of-date software, unreliable hardware, and unsecure networks all represent vulnerabilities and security holes that can potentially be threatening to your sensitive data. These holes are perfect places for cybercriminals to slip malware into.

There are many different types of malware, but spyware is especially convenient for stealing sensitive data. Usually, spyware is installed as part of a seemingly harmless download. Once the spyware infects the system, it sends all your sensitive business data back to the command and control servers run by the attackers. What makes spyware so efficient is the fact that it can gain access to your data while being totally undetected (at least until it’s too late).

Another common type of malware is ransomware. Verizon’s 2020 Data Breach Investigations Report shows that 27% of all malware attacks were ransomware. However, not every ransomware attack causes a data breach.

Ransomware attacks in general restrict data access on infected devices until the ransom is paid. Only if sensitive data is stolen does a ransomware attack actually qualify as a data breach. Once the confidential data is copied by the attackers, they use it to blackmail companies, threatening to leak their data if they refuse to pay.

Here are some of the steps you can take to protect your business from malware attacks:

  • Ensure network security
  • Install Antivirus, Anti-Malware, and Anti-Ransomware Software
  • Perform regular updates
  • Use encryption

Social engineering

Unlike malware-based intrusions that rely on software vulnerabilities, social engineering relies on psychological manipulations and human errors. Through human interactions, attackers can manipulate employees into giving away sensitive information.

Social engineering is often only the first step and it can be used in various different ways, from stealing credentials to inflicting systems with malware.

Phishing is by far the most popular form of social engineering. These scams are mostly carried out via email campaigns, with messages aiming to create a sense of fear or urgency in victims.

For example, a scammer can send a false alert that system security has been compromised, urging recipients to immediately change their password. However, this message would lead to an illegitimate website that looks nearly identical to its legitimate version – tricking the recipient to enter current credentials and reveal them to the attacker.

Phishing messages are usually sent to multiple employees, so it can be relatively easy to spot them if you have an email monitoring system in place. Email archiving solutions can help you monitor both internal and external email content and track problematic communication. That way, you can prevent employees from sharing sensitive business data, ensure email compliance and avoid legal issues.

You can create a list of keywords that might indicate alarming behavior and get notified in case any of those words get used. Proactively monitoring electronic communication for information such as credit card numbers or social security numbers can help you prevent leakage of sensitive information and stay compliant.

Weak or stolen credentials

While phishing attacks aim to manipulate employees into willingly giving away credentials, sometimes the hackers use different password cracking  tools to gain access to employee’s credentials.

We also already mentioned how spyware can stealthily steal your sensitive data, including passwords and credentials. Keyloggers record every keystroke made on the affected device, and with this information, usernames and passwords can easily be worked out even without seeing what comes up on the screen.

Another method hackers use to get a hold on login information is a brute force attack. This is an old method that is still often used today with the help of automated tools. Brute force attacks rely on trial-and-error to guess login information or encryption keys, working through all possible combinations until they guess correctly.

Here are some of the password management best practices that can help you prevent credential theft:

  • Use different passwords for different accounts
  • Use long passwords – use 16 characters whenever you can
  • Use complex passwords – combine upper and lower cases, numbers, and special characters
  • Use multi-factor authentication – add an additional layer of protection to your passwords
  • Use a password manager – a secure vault can help you organize your passwords

Physical theft

When we think about data breaches, we think of them as a result of cybercrime. However, while your data might be stored digitally, it can also be stolen physically – more precisely the devices containing your data can be subjected to theft.

Especially now when BYOD policies are becoming increasingly popular and more and more people are working remotely, it’s harder for businesses to protect their devices, as they are often not located on-premise.

Luckily, there are some precautionary measures you can take to ensure that your data stays safe even if your devices get stolen. Namely, all of your sensitive data should be encrypted to prevent thieves from reading it.

You should also consider using remote wipe solutions that will enable you to delete your data from a device in case of theft, or even do it automatically after a few failed login attempts. Just don’t forget to backup your data so you don’t lose it!

Human error

What makes most of these practices especially dangerous is that they rely on human error, rather than system vulnerabilities and software flaws. While securing your network and protecting your software is a technical issue that can be easily controlled, making sure that your employees are adhering to your security policies is much more difficult, as humans are much less predictable.

From downloading malware and being prone to phishing attacks to poor password management and failure to protect devices from theft, human error is an underlying issue of every major data breach cause.

That’s why raising employee awareness about these threats is one of the best tools any business can have when fighting against data breaches.

Implementing comprehensive employee training from day one, creating real-life simulated exercises to check how employees would respond in critical situations, continuous monitoring to check if they’re following protocol, and updating your security policies whenever a new threat arises is essential to keep your employees vigilant and your data safe.

Keep in mind that most of these threats don’t exist in a bubble. Social engineering can lead to malware infections, phishing and spyware can lead to exposed credentials, and employee errors can make all of these attacks easier for hackers. That’s why it’s important to implement a holistic approach to data breach prevention and get every single one of your employees on board with it.

Also, don’t forget that these are not the only causes of data breaches. Just because others are not as common, it doesn’t mean that you don’t need to protect your business from those potential threats as well.

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