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What is a Data Breach and How to Protect Against It?

Danny Murphy | 7 min read| Updated On - May 8, 2023

What is a Data Breach

Although the media tends to report data breaches that involve large corporations, small companies are also frequently targeted. Even if a breach appears trivial, cyber-criminals are eager to access sensitive data which they can sell or misuse for identity theft, phishing attacks, or extortion. All data breaches demand urgent attention.

What is a Data Breach?

A data breach is when sensitive information, such as medical records, financial data, or personally identifiable information (PII), is accessed without authorization by malicious insiders or external attackers. According to research by Surfshark, the number of worldwide data breaches is on the rise, with a total of 108.9M accounts breached in the third quarter of 2022.

Types of Data Breaches

Various types of data breaches can occur, and it’s important to identify the different types in order to mitigate risks and maintain compliance with the relevant data privacy laws. These different types are detailed below.

Accidental exposure of sensitive information

This type of breach refers to situations where sensitive information or credentials are unintentionally placed in public repositories or other web-accessible locations. As an example, several high-profile data breaches have been caused by misconfigured Amazon S3 buckets, mistakenly left open to the internet. To prevent such incidents, you should use an automated scanning solution to periodically check for misconfigurations, sending alerts to the administrator if any are detected. It is also important to use a real-time auditing solution to detect and respond to changes in software configurations.

Unauthorized access to critical systems and data

Bad actors commonly try to take advantage of vulnerabilities in authentication and authorization systems to gain access to confidential data. To make matters worse, many companies are still failing to enforce a strong password policy. Employees are using and reusing easy-to-guess passwords, and in some cases, they share their credentials with their colleagues. Likewise, many organizations fail to restrict access to sensitive data, thus increasing the likelihood of a breach.

Transmitting data using non-secure protocols

Perpetrators are able to gain access to sensitive data transmitted using non-secure protocols or other insecure methods by intercepting the communication between the sender and receiver. They can use tools such as packet sniffers or man-in-the-middle attacks to intercept unencrypted data packets. Once intercepted, the perpetrator can read, modify or even duplicate the data. This is a major security risk as it allows the perpetrator to access sensitive information such as credit card details, personal information, or passwords. To minimize the risk, secure protocols such as HTTPS, SSL, or VPN should be used to encrypt data transmission.

Poor physical security measures

Data is sometimes extracted from stolen laptops, smartphones, or tablets. Occasionally, an employee may misplace or have a company-issued device containing sensitive information stolen. In these instances, utilizing Mobile Device Management (MDM) software for laptops and mobile devices may enable remote control of the device. If necessary, the device’s contents can be wiped once reported as lost or stolen. Unfortunately, for USB pens or hard drives containing sensitive information that are lost or stolen, little can be done, aside from alerting the relevant personnel.

Using out-of-date or unpatched software

It’s a given that attackers will attempt to capitalize on any weaknesses found in software, and the outcome can be devastating. A prime example of this is the WannaCry attack, which managed to exploit a Windows vulnerability. Though a patch had already been published before the event, a number of users failed to implement it. To avoid such scenarios, employ an automated patch management system to ensure timely installation of patches and updates.

Phishing and social engineering attacks

Attackers frequently masquerade as trusted entities in order to trick unsuspecting victims into either handing over sensitive data or installing malicious software on their devices. Since employees are the first line of defense against phishing and social engineering attacks, it is imperative that you carry out regular security awareness training, and try to create a “culture of security”. To be more precise, you need to ensure that employees remain alert and are able to identify suspicious emails, SMS messages, phone calls, friend requests, and so on.

Malware and ransomware attacks

Malware attacks are on the rise, and ransomware has become a major concern for organizations. Double and triple extortion techniques are being used to further extort the victims, and Ransomware-as-a-Service (RaaS) has become its own industry. As above, regular security awareness training must be carried out to ensure that users know how to identify suspicious email attachments. Ensure that you have the best anti-malware solutions in place, and consider adopting a real-time auditing solution that is capable of automatically responding to events that match a pre-defined threshold condition, such as when X number of files have been encrypted within a given time frame.

How Data Breaches Happen: The Data Breach Cycle

Data breaches can be catastrophic, causing financial losses, legal liabilities, and reputational damage. Knowing how attackers plan and execute their attacks can help organizations prevent or mitigate data breaches.

Step 1: Reconnaissance

Before launching an attack, the attacker will conduct reconnaissance by identifying potential targets in the organization. They may use various tools, such as port scanners, vulnerability scanners, and social engineering techniques to gather information.

Step 2: Infection

Once the attacker has identified a potential target, they will attempt to breach the organization’s security perimeter and gain access to its network. The entry point could be a vulnerable server, a misconfigured firewall, or a compromised user account.

Step 3: Lateral movement and privilege escalation

After gaining a foothold in the network, the attacker will try to move laterally to other systems and user accounts to increase their access privileges, and ultimately reach the sensitive data they are after. The attacker could use various techniques, such as password cracking, phishing, and privilege escalation exploits.

Step 4: Exfiltration

Once the attacker has obtained the sensitive data, they will leak it outside the organization’s network. The attacker may do this by encrypting the data and transmitting it over a covert channel, or by physically stealing the data using removable storage devices. The attacker may use the data for personal gain, resell it on the black market, or use it to extort the victim.

Data Breach Protection Best Practices

Preventing data breaches requires a holistic approach that combines technical, procedural, and educational measures. Organizations need to implement robust security controls, such as firewalls, intrusion detection systems, and access controls. They also need to train their employees to recognize and report suspicious activities and have incident response plans in place to respond to data breaches promptly and effectively. Here are some of the most notable best practices for data breach prevention.

How Lepide Helps to Prevent Data Breaches

The Lepide Data Security Platform will give you the visibility you need to minimize the chance of a data breach. If a breach does unfold, our platform will help you answer questions about what happened, when/how it happened, and who was involved. Our solution provides the following features:

Multi-platform support: Our platform is designed to aggregate event data from multiple cloud platforms, including Office 365, Dropbox, Amazon S3, G Suite, and other platforms.

User-friendly dashboard: With our intuitive dashboard, you can easily oversee modifications made to your sensitive data, and receive instant notifications upon detecting any abnormal activity.

Data classification tools: Our platform has an integrated data classification feature that will thoroughly scan your repositories for sensitive data and classify it accordingly.

Compliance reports: Our platform allows you to easily generate reports that provide a summary of all incidents related to your sensitive data. You can share these reports with relevant authorities to demonstrate compliance.

Machine learning models: Our software uses machine learning models to establish a baseline of user activity, which can be tested against to identify anomalies.

Threshold alerting: Our platform can detect and respond to events that match a pre-defined threshold condition, ensuring that any suspicious activity is addressed promptly.

If you’d like to see how the Lepide Data Security Platform can help you detect and respond to data breaches, schedule a demo with one of our engineers or start your free trial today.

Danny Murphy
Danny Murphy

Danny brings over 10 years’ experience in the IT industry to our Leadership team. With award winning success in leading global Pre-Sales and Support teams, coupled with his knowledge and enthusiasm for IT Security solutions, he is here to ensure we deliver market leading products and support to our extensively growing customer base

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