What Is Data Leakage And How To Prevent It - 2024

Data Leakage

As internet usage continues to grow rapidly, so does the staggering amount of personal data being generated daily. A recent 2023 study revealed that on average, every online user creates around 15.87 terabytes of data per day.

That’s an immense volume of sensitive information like names, contact details, financial records, and much more. With cyber criminals always on the hunt for crimes, it’s crucial that this mountain of personal data remains secure and doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

One of the biggest threats is data leakage, which can have devastating consequences like identity theft, financial losses, and privacy breaches.

In this article, we’ll explore what data leakage is, the different ways it can occur, and effective strategies you can implement to safeguard your valuable personal information from leaking out.

What is Data Leakage & Key Differences Between Data Leakage & Data Breach

Data leakage refers to the accidental or unintentional exposure or transmission of sensitive data to unauthorized parties, whether within the organization or outside. It often happens due to human error or lack of proper safeguards.

A data breach, on the other hand, is a malicious cyberattack where hackers deliberately gain unauthorized access to systems and intentionally steal or compromise data. While both can have serious consequences, the key distinction lies in the intent and method behind the exposure.

With data leakage, the data essentially just “slips out” through flaws in processes, policies, or due to negligence by insiders with legitimate access. It’s not an external attack exploiting a software vulnerability.

For example, suppose an employee accidentally attaches and emails a file containing customers’ data to the wrong recipients, exposing that sensitive information unintentionally. This would be classified as a data leak.

The data breach would be, if hackers can breach a company’s network and databases through a security flaw and deliberately steal customer records, payment data, etc.

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Both leakage and breaches can enable threats like identity theft, financial fraud, legal issues, and reputational damage. However, their underlying causes may differ—negligence/human error for leaks, and malicious exploitation for breaches.

A Real-Life Example of Data Leakage

In 2019 November, a dark web researcher Vinney Troia found one file easily accessible on an unsecured server. It had 4 TB of personal information and 1.2 billion records.

This file had phone and home numbers, and their social profiles like Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, and Github. Troai reported that to the FBI & within a few hours, someone exposed the data offline.

Troia found that four data sets were merged, and they were labeled, from the server from a data broker known as People Data Lab. One of the PDL’s user used their enrichment products. He then hosted this on an open server. (source)

Types of Data Leakage

Accidental Leakage

One of the most common types of data leakage happens purely by accident or human error. Contrary to what you might think, these unintentional leaks occur frequently in various situations:

  • Sensitive data posted online inadvertently: Employees may mistakenly paste confidential code, documents, or technical data into public online repositories like GitHub.
  • Cloud misconfigurations: Improperly configured cloud storage services like Amazon S3 buckets can inadvertently expose private employee records, customer data, etc. to the public internet.
  • Improper sharing/permissions: Sensitive files or documents are shared with unintended recipients or left accessible to unauthorized parties due to incorrect permission settings.
  • Email mistakes: Employees send emails containing critical business information or personal data to the wrong people by mistake.
  • Software vulnerabilities: Sensitive data exposure resulting from unpatched security flaws or vulnerabilities in software/systems.

The root cause behind most accidental leaks is human error and lack of adequate security training/awareness among employees. Other contributors include poor data handling policies, excessive data access privileges, and failure to apply security patches promptly.

Malicious Communications

In some cases, data leaks are not accidental but rather caused intentionally by malicious actors through deceptive communications and inside threats:

Spear Phishing Attacks
Cybercriminals may target employees with highly personalized phishing emails crafted to trick them into revealing sensitive login credentials or data. These “spear phishing” attacks exploit human vulnerabilities rather than just technical flaws.

Malicious Insiders

Disgruntled current or former employees who have legitimate data access can become an insider threat. Unhappy insiders may maliciously steal and leak confidential data like trade secrets, customer records, etc. to competitors, and extortionists or sell it on black markets for financial gain.

Rogue Business Partners

Third-party partners, vendors, or contractors with access to an organization’s systems also pose data leak risks if they have malicious intent. They may covertly exfiltrate and misuse sensitive data they can legitimately view.

Physical Data Theft

While data leaks often occur through digital means, physical theft or loss of devices/media containing sensitive data is another major cause for concern.

Bad actors may intentionally breach an organization’s physical perimeters to steal computers, hard drives, USB drives, or other media storing confidential data.

Employees may inadvertently misplace or lose company-issued devices like laptops, smartphones, or removable storage media that contain important data, leading to physical data leakage.

How To Prevent Data Leakage

Preventing data leakage requires a comprehensive, multi-layered approach spanning people, processes, and technology. Here are some key strategies organizations can implement:

  • Monitor Vendor Security Posture

Regularly assess and verify the security certifications (e.g. SOC2) and compliance measures of all third-party vendors that have access to your data. Use questionnaires to understand their data handling practices.

  • Implement Data Encryption

Encrypt all sensitive data, both at rest (in storage) and in transit (during transmission), to ensure it remains secure even if intercepted by malicious actors.

  • Control Access Monitoring

Monitor who is accessing which systems, data, and applications, and log all access attempts. Leverage tools to detect anomalies that could indicate insider threats or breaches.

  • Classify and Identify Sensitive Data

Maintain an inventory of all data sources, classify data based on sensitivity levels, and apply appropriate security controls for regulated data like personal information.

  • Secure All Endpoints

Identify and secure all potential entry points, external and internal, by patching vulnerabilities, reducing attack surfaces, and monitoring endpoints.

  • Enforce Least Privilege

Strictly control permissions and only provide access to sensitive data on a need-to-know basis for employees and approved third parties.

  • Provide Security Awareness Training

Regularly train employees on cybersecurity best practices, risks like phishing, proper data handling, and the consequences of negligence.

  • Monitor Cloud Services

Continuously audit cloud service configurations and access settings to prevent inadvertent data exposure due to misconfigurations.

Data Leakage

  • Deploy Protective Solutions

Implement security tools like Cloud Access Security Brokers (CASB) and Digital Risk Protection to identify, monitor, and remediate data leakage risks across cloud and digital channels.

Protecting against data leaks requires a holistic strategy combining strong access controls, data security policies, employee training, and deploying the right security technologies across your entire digital ecosystem.

Conclusion

While implementing the preventative measures outlined above can significantly reduce data leakage risks, it’s important to note that accidental or malicious leaks can still potentially occur.

If sensitive data does get exposed externally, it may end up being sold or traded on underground dark web marketplaces by cybercriminals. Leaked credentials could then enable account takeovers, targeted attacks, and other malicious activities against your organization.

Given the increasing digital attack surface and evolving threat landscape, having robust data leakage detection capabilities is crucial. Specialized digital risk protection solutions can continuously monitor the open, deep, and dark web to immediately identify any instances of your organization’s data leaking externally.

By combining proactive data security best practices with reactive leakage detection across all digital channels, organizations can effectively prevent, identify, and respond to data leaks – minimizing the potential damage and costs of such incidents.

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