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What Is a Data Leak?

Monica Webster

“Data leak jeopardizes more than 150 million users.” “Hacker leaks 33 million usernames and passwords.” Sounds familiar? As security technology advances and becomes more sophisticated, companies are struggling to keep up with the latest requirements. Now hardly a day goes by that we don’t hear about a data leak or a breach. Read on to find out how they differ and what you can do to prevent your company’s data from leaking.

Data leak is a security incident in which private information becomes available to unauthorized persons. People may steal, accidentally transfer, or willingly give it away. Leaked data can be both in digital (electronic files) of physical (documents, letters, pictures, devices) form. However, data leaks are not the same thing as data breaches.

Usually, data leaks happen because of poor security measures or someone’s accidental actions. For example, security researchers from vpnMentor have been hunting for open databases for years now. Whenever they manage to find one, it’s called a data leak. Just last month, they discovered that the Key Ring app used a misconfigured Amazon S3 bucket to store 44 million records that included people’s IDs, insurance information, driver licenses, and credit cards. Even if no malicious actors noticed it before them and the company took care to close the database, it’s still classified as a data leak.

Data breaches, on the other hand, happen when a cybercriminal attacks a company or a database on purpose and manages to obtain secret information. They use DDoS attacks, malware, and social engineering to break through the company’s defenses. The results of data breaches and leaks are similar, but the methods differ.

Types of data leaks

  • Intentional data leak. It might be an employee who sells the company’s secrets or users’ records for personal financial gain. It might also be a whistleblower who has moral objections to the things they witness in the company they work for. Either way, they know exactly what they are doing and usually try to remain anonymous.

  • Accidental data leak. An accidental leak could be something as trivial as sending a confidential email to the wrong address. Leaving a database with your customers’ data publicly accessible is also considered to be an accidental data leak. But the consequences ultimately depend on who got the email or found the loophole allowing them to access the database.

  • Outsider working to damage the company. Sometimes people will look for gaps in your security to prove that there are some. They will not attack you openly. Instead, they will look for loopholes and bugs in the system that would allow them to get access to information that’s not supposed to be accessible from the outside.

How to prevent data leaks and breaches

There are a few security practices and procedures you should establish in your company to minimize the risk of a data leak. Keep in mind that you won’t be able to control everything – you never know when you might become a cybercriminal’s target. However, taking a few preventive measures will give you some peace of mind:

  • Control your data. You must have backups in case something happens, but don’t store unnecessary copies of sensitive data. Keeping it extra safe in one secure database instead of multiple terminals will lessen the chance of it leaking. It’s also essential that you know and control who has access to what information. Employees should only be allowed to access the data they need for their work. This way, you can avoid a lot of accidents and intentional leaks.

  • Place restrictions on your employees’ emails. You can set up Google Drive to notify your employees whenever they attempt to share the company’s files with an outsider. Also, try using spam and phishing filters to cut the risk of successful social engineering attacks.

  • Train your employees. Basic understanding of potential cybersecurity risks is essential for every person working in your company, especially if you handle sensitive data. Everyone from the receptionist to the head analyst should be aware of different social engineering attacks, malware types, and internal security requirements. If they know and understand how much damage a data leak would do to the company, they are bound to be more careful.

  • Establish strong security measures in your company. Use firewalls to protect your network and restrict certain traffic. Make sure you’re safe from malware, like ransomware, spyware, or keyloggers. Use a VPN with robust encryption to ensure secure connections, especially if your employees travel a lot or work from home often. Make sure they use strong passwords and two-factor authentication for their most sensitive accounts. Encourage using a password generator to create a complex password of at least 12 characters and a password manager to store them safely.

  • Prepare for the worst. It’s a good idea to have a response and damage control plan ready in case a data leak does happen. If you suffer from a cyberattack, every minute is precious, and being able to act fast could save you a lot of money in the long run.

What should you do if your data ended up in a data leak?

First, find out what kind of data was leaked. Account names, email addresses, and passwords end up in data leaks most often. If your account was affected, change the password as soon as possible. In case you used the same password anywhere else, you would need to change it on those accounts as well. If you don’t, you will be susceptible to a credential stuffing attack, and all your online accounts will be at risk.

If credit card and banking information were affected, you should contact your bank immediately and block your cards and payments in your account. It would also be a good idea to change passwords and set up additional security measures for your account.

If your data ended up in a leak, it’s a good opportunity to change all your passwords. Make them unique, long, and impossible to remember. And from now on, store them in a password manager, so the next time a leak happens, you won’t need to go through all your accounts.

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