Data leaks are nothing new. But they hardly get the attention a data breach commands. And often, they are confused with the latter. A severe lack of knowledge is undoubtedly the most significant contributing factor to data leakage within organizations. And continuing to ignore this very real threat could cause immeasurable damage to your business.
So, what exactly is data leakage, and, most importantly, how can you prevent it? Let’s take a closer look.
A data leak is an accidental disclosure of information. It can occur under different circumstances. Simple mistakes like writing your password on a Post-it note, leaving open a sensitive document, or leaving behind your laptop at a café could all provide third parties with access to important company data.
Sometimes it could result from a security vulnerability. The leak of over 200 million Twitter records that took the media by storm last year is an excellent example. An API flow was eventually identified as the likely cause of the incident. It was a preventable vulnerability, which paved the way for a critical data leak.
So how is it different from a data breach? A data breach often results from a targeted attack, whereas a leak is the result of unintentional data exposure. In other words, a breach is similar to someone breaking into your house to steal your phone. And data leakage is the same as accidentally leaving your phone in a cafe, making it easier for anyone to take.
A data leak can also lead to a data breach. For example, let’s say you unintentionally left open a document containing sensitive customer data. While you’re away from your desk, a disgruntled employee could take a photo of the information and sell it to a cybercriminal. The first incident is a data leak, while the latter results in a clear breach.
It is often difficult to put an exact value on the true cost of a data leak. The consequences could be detrimental to a business and may extend long into the future.
A data leak can disrupt operations as the business scrambles to deal with the resulting media scrutiny, stakeholder complaints, and potential lawsuits. The reputational damage is undeniably the most difficult to amend, as customers lose trust in your business. All these could have a damaging impact on the revenue and future growth of an organization.
In addition, a single data leak can trigger a chain of data crimes, leading to even more extensive and costly data breaches. For example, a criminal could sell leaked customer data to other nefarious individuals who could combine it with more stolen user information and target victims for cyber scams. But unfortunately, by the time you discover a data leak, the damage is already done, and reversing the consequences could be virtually impossible.
Let’s now look at essential steps to prevent a data leak.
Human error is inarguably the number one cause of data leaks and breaches. But preventing human error is often the most difficult.
The problem is humans are easier to manipulate and influence than machines. And emotions can frequently get in the way of sound judgment. For instance, simple curiosity could get you to click on a phishing link, the trusting nature of individuals could make you share sensitive data, and negligence could result in careless, often preventable mistakes like writing down passwords on a piece of paper.
So, regular employee training is essential to minimize human error: keep your team up-to-date on cybersecurity trends and common threats. Educate them about best practices to identify and prevent risks. Some of these can include:
Employees often have access to an unnecessary amount of company data, increasing the risk of both intentional and unintentional leaks. So, adopting a strictly need-to-know approach to data handling is crucial.
Access controls can help you determine who can retrieve which information, with password controls to prevent unauthorized access. With sensitive data, initiate systems to discourage or block the copying, sharing, or printing of information. For example, you can prohibit external storage devices and monitor all data-related activities.
Effective data security policies can help prevent risks of data leakage by defining company protocols. They provide a framework to guide employee behavior related to data practices, making monitoring, controlling, identifying, and mitigating risks easier.
For example, your policies can define approved third-party platforms and applications for employees who work from home and use their own devices for work purposes. They can include data sharing, storage procedures, and password policies.
Your data security policy should also cover third-party risks with necessary assessments and checklists. These will help prevent potential data leakage risks arising from vendors and other third parties.
Technology keeps evolving constantly: this represents new opportunities for cybercriminals and new threats and vulnerabilities for organizations. So, from time to time, it is essential to evaluate your security infrastructure and ensure you keep pace with technological advances.
For example, reassess your security architecture with a comprehensive review of critical areas like end-point protection and firewalls. Vulnerability assessments help identify potential issues and weaknesses, so you can rectify them before a data leak occurs.
Ensure all software, including antivirus protection, is up-to-date. Also, re-look at where your data is located, including what is stored on the cloud. And introduce automation where possible to minimize dependency on human intervention.
Protecting your data is not a one-time activity or process. It requires constant effort — you must update your technology and protocols continuously, train employees to refresh their knowledge, and systematically strengthen your organization’s security hygiene. That is the price you pay to safeguard your data — an invaluable asset for any organization in today’s economy.