How to Detect a Data Breach (5 Critical Steps)

How to Detect a Data Breach (5 Critical Steps)

It’s unfortunate but true - Any company today faces an increasing risk of a data breach.

In fact, for many, it really isn’t a question of if it will happen but rather when.

But although you might not be able to prevent a data breach, you can detect it early enough to minimize its effect on your business.

In this guide, I’ll show you how to do just that - Detect a data breach early enough to prevent cybercrime from happening.

Before we get to that, though, let’s discuss something more in-depth…

Table of contents:

We truly face an ever-growing risk of a data breach…

…and the numbers are beyond staggering…

According to IT Governance, for example, there were 1351 publicly disclosed data breach incidents in December 2023 alone.

(NOTE - We’ve reported quite a number of them, too, in our recent data breaches repository.)

What’s even worse is that, as IT Governance confirms, that’s a 187% rise in attacks compared to the previous month alone!

And needless to say - These attacks leave a devastating landscape in their wake.

  • Affected companies lose credibility.
  • They often struggle to recover their customers’ trust.
  • Not to mention, every data breach means huge financial losses.

For example, here’s what the growth of monetary damages caused by reported data breaches looked like in the US between 2017 and 2022. (Note - Figures reported in millions of dollars.)

Financial damages caused by data breaches in the US

(Image source)

Jawdropping, isn’t it?

Here are some even more worrying statistics…

According to the International Association for Privacy Professionals, around 45% of companies in the US suffered a data breach last year. (If that’s not scary enough, consider this - Experts suggest that the data might be significantly higher since many data breaches remain undetected for a long time.)

Speaking of data breach detection, according to another source, it takes companies an average of 277 days to discover their data was breached.

But what’s even worse is that a study cited by the source claims that that time has increased in 2023!

At the same time, early detection of data breaches is critical.

Let me explain.

Only when you’ve detected the breach early can you take action to contain the incident. Early detection allows you to protect sensitive data and prevent further unauthorized access to your data. In fact, early detection is exactly how you prevent these security breaches from escalating any further.

Let’s face it: If you took 277 days to realize that your data was breached, all the damage was long done.

But preventing further escalation is just one aspect of the issue. You see, early detection doesn’t just minimize the risk of cybercrime. It helps you mitigate the breach’s effect on your brand image and customer trust.

Timely detection also enables you to conduct thorough forensic analysis, understand the attack’s TTPs (tactics, techniques, and procedures), and, in response, strengthen security measures to prevent similar attacks in the future.

Before we go through the steps you need to take to detect a data breach, let’s briefly discuss how data breaches happen.

How do data breaches typically happen?

There is a wide range of different types of data breaches and ways by which cybercriminals breach data security.

But on the whole, these methods can be grouped into three categories:

Loss or theft (both of data or equipment)

Unfortunately, mistakes often happen due to human error. What’s also unfortunate is that they can lead to a data breach.

Consider these scenarios:

  • An employee leaving their work laptop behind on a subway. Even if the device is password protected, cybercriminals can brute force the login and gain access to data that would help them infiltrate the company’s network.
  • An employee mailing or e-mailing intellectual property or other sensitive data to the wrong person. Once again, this could lead to sensitive information being leaked and used in further cyber attacks.
  • Theft in the company’s premises could expose its various devices - laptops, computers, servers, or even iPads - to malicious users.

In either of these example scenarios, an unintentional situation - loss or theft, neither of which is usually planned for in advance, not by those affected, anyway - can lead to the exposure of data that could assist hackers in gaining initial access.

Insider threats

We generally split insider threats into several categories:

  • Security incidents deliberately initiated by disgruntled employees.
  • Departing employees taking materials and sensitive information with them as they leave.
  • Negligent and careless employees downloading malware or falling prey to phishing attacks.
  • Inside agents, who are usually employees who work on behalf of a hacker group to infiltrate the company’s systems.

Overall, the most common culprit is either a disgruntled employee or a departing one (particularly if they haven’t left on good terms.)

In fact, the history of cyber security breaches is full of examples of employees deliberately leaking a company’s information or assisting hackers in conducting such cyber attacks.

Only last year, two former Tesla employees orchestrated a massive data breach and leaked thousands of personal records of current and former employees.

A year before, a departing Yahoo! employee allegedly stole trade secrets from the company upon their departure.

But as I mentioned earlier, careless employees can also unintentionally allow hackers to infiltrate the company’s systems.

A common example of that is Twitter. In 2020, the company’s employees fell victim to a phishing attack, allowing hackers to access 130 private and corporate Twitter accounts, including Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos. They used those to promote a Bitcoin scam.

And it all started with a clever email that pretended to be from Twitter’s IT team and a negligent employee who failed to verify the origin of the message…

RECOMMENDED READING: How insider threats cause data breaches.

Targeted attacks

The final group revolves around deliberate attacks on the company’s systems.

The Twitter example above would relate to this category. After all, hackers targeted employees directly with the intention of finding those who’d be careless enough to respond to their messages.

And that’s the nature of targeted attacks. They are deliberate, highly targeted, and well-prepared. Hackers conducting those attacks usually conduct extensive reconnaissance, looking for potential vulnerabilities or people to exploit.

Another good example of a deliberately planned cyber attack is the attack on Avast, a VPN and antivirus software company that occurred in 2019.

Using compromised login credentials, hackers tried to gain access to the company’s systems to inject malware into their products. Had they been successful, every Avast user would have automatically ended up with malware on their computers.

Early indicators of a data breach

Typically, the process of detecting a data breach happens in two stages.

First, the company notices something suspicious. These are the early indicators that we’re going to discuss shortly.

Then, their security team conducts an investigation that detects that data has been breached.

So, what are those early indicators to look out for?

Unusual network activity

I admit that it’s difficult to define what the word unusual should mean in this context, and that’s because any activity outside of the norm could suggest a problem:

  • Higher than usual traffic on the site.
  • Unexpected password recovery prompts.
  • An increase in failed login attempts.
  • Even an unusual lack of emails might suggest something is amiss.

Unauthorized data access attempts or unusual account activity

Once again, this early indicator can come in many shapes and forms:

  • Password recovery attempts that weren’t initiated by employees.
  • Login attempts to the company’s systems outside of normal business hours.
  • An overall increase in login attempts.
  • Encrypted files due to a ransomware attack

Unexpected database changes or missing files

This is another of those indicators that falls under the umbrella of “this is not usual, let’s investigate.”

But it’s true, anything usual - even a critical file going missing or not being able to access specific information - that you notice in the system can indicate a data breach, and you should never discount it as just a fluke.

Increased number of phishing emails to employees

As with the Twitter example I shared earlier, hackers often begin their attack by targeting employees with phishing emails. Their goal is to get an employee to unknowingly download malware on their computer and allow hackers to access their device.

Any reports of an unusual spike in weird or suspicious emails suggest that such an attack might be in progress.

Issues with system performance

Many cyber threats, such as DDoS attacks, can impact the network’s performance and speed. And so, if you notice an unexplained slower performance, it might be because the system is under attack.

How to detect a data breach and respond properly

As the headline suggests, the process of detecting and responding to a data breach takes place in five distinct steps. Here they are:

1. Prepare for a data breach before it happens

As much as it saddens me, I have to repeat a statement I made earlier - For most companies, it’s not a question of whether a data breach will happen but when.

You’ve seen staggering statistics that confirm it. Nearly half of the businesses in the US suffered a data breach last year, and given that more and more such incidents occur each month, we can only assume that the number of affected companies is only going to increase, too.

Therefore, the first step in the process is to assume that a data breach will happen to you at some point and have an incident response plan ready.

I compiled a complete list of what to include in the data breach response plan, and I recommend that you review it. But for now, let me give you a quick overview.

Your incident response plan should define the following:

  • Who should be on the response team
  • The process you’ll take to identify and contain the breach
  • Any security experts you can engage
  • The process for documenting the incident
  • The process for notifying law enforcement and regulatory agencies
  • The process for assessing the extent of the damage,
  • How you’re going to communicate with affected parties and more.

Once again, I recommend that you review our data breach response plan guidelines to learn more.

Note - I repeat this because, as you’ll see shortly, many of the actions on the response plan correspond with the process of detecting the breach, as well.

2. Detect and confirm the breach

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) recommends that the process of confirming a data breach be split into two components - leads and indicators.

  • Leads are server logs that indicate a security incident or an attack notification by a cybercriminal group.
  • An indicator, as we discussed, is a factor that suggests a breach has either been experienced or is, in fact, happening in real-time.

In either case, leads or indicators serve as proof that the company has suffered a cyber incident and needs to start taking action to either prevent it from escalating or remedy the situation.

Data breach monitoring

IMPORTANT - There is another way that can help prevent a major data breach before it happens: data breach monitoring.

Data breach monitoring is the process of monitoring the dark web for sensitive data related to specific individuals, companies, leaked credentials, internal company documents, and other types of PII.

Software like Breachsense (disclaimer - this is our tool) continuously tracks millions of online sources, including Telegram channels, cybercrime marketplaces, ransomware gangs, IRC channels, paste sites, and more, and notifies your security team the moment there are any mentions of your:

  • Employee or customer account credentials or other sensitive data
  • Login credentials to your C-level executive accounts
  • Credentials for remote administrative servers like SSH, Remote Desktop, and FTP
  • Internal company emails or documents

Here’s what Breachsense JSON data looks like:

JSON showing a data breached

Breachsense is perfect if you want to automate the process of monitoring for leaked credentials and sensitive company data.

The system integrates with your SIEM and SOC and sends you real-time notifications whenever sensitive information has been leaked.

Want to know more? Learn more about Breachsense.

Want to see Breachsense in action? Book a demo, and let us show you how Breachsense helps you monitor leaked data and prevent data breaches before they happen.

3. Document the breach and gather evidence

This is a first response step, and it relates mostly to documenting the breach so that you have enough information to proceed with the next steps.

Your breach documentation should, at minimum, include:

  • Date and time when the breach was discovered,
  • Date and time when the response to the breach began,
  • Information about who discovered and reported the breach,
  • The location of the data breach - what files were affected, etc.
  • All possible data about the breach and initial assessment of how it might have occurred.
  • Information about systems affected by the breach,
  • Initial assessment of the extent of damage caused by the breach,
  • Ongoing documentation of the investigation.
  • List of relevant law enforcement and regulatory agencies that have been notified, along with the date and time (as well as other relevant information) they were notified.

4. Contain the breach

With the initial documentation concluded, you need to stop the attack. The primary goal of this stage is threefold: limit the scope and magnitude of the breach, prevent further unauthorized access, and stabilize the situation.

There are several actions that need to be carried out, the most important being:

  • Isolate the affected systems
  • Secure the network perimeter
  • Change passwords / revoke access rights from compromised accounts
  • Deploy security patches and updates
  • Scan and clean malware-infected devices
  • Monitor network traffic for malicious activity that may be associated with the attack
  • Verify the integrity of your backups to ensure they’re not compromised

5. Notify affected parties

This might be the hardest step besides admitting to yourself that you got breached.

Part of the difficulty is that, in this case, you need to admit the fact to others.

But notifying affected parties - investors, stakeholders, business partners, customers, etc. - is critical, as it can help those individuals take proactive steps to mitigate the risk on their end. They’d be able to change passwords (particularly in those places that use the same or similar passwords as the one they used in your system) and monitor their systems for any unusual activity. Handling this correctly will help limit reputational damage as well.

After that, you need to move to a post-breach stage of the process…

The process involves a much deeper analysis of the incident and its consequences.

You will, most likely, conduct a review of your organization’s cybersecurity systems and processes. Document lessons learned and use this experience to update your data protection policies, incident response plan, and other relevant policies to close any gaps identified during the breach investigation.

Periodic training sessions will help ensure that employees are both aware of security policies and know how to recognize and respond to security threats.

Closing thoughts

Undoubtedly, a data breach is not a situation anyone would like to find themselves in.

But many companies do and do so every day.

Knowing how to detect a data breach and what to do about it is paramount to initiating a strong recovery plan and mitigating the damage caused by the data breach.

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