14 Data Leak Prevention Strategies

14 Data Leak Prevention Strategies

Fact: 74% of all data breaches include an element of human error.

Fact: 86% of all data breaches involve the use of stolen credentials.

It’s not the latest zero-day exploit making the rounds that should keep you up at night.

Malicious users don’t need to exploit vulnerabilities when they can simply exploit server misconfigurations or leaked employee passwords to gain unauthorized access.

In this post, we’ll cover what data leaks are, what causes them, what kind of data is at risk along with 14 strategies you can use to prevent a data leak in your organization.

Table of contents:

What is data leak prevention?

A data leak happens when sensitive data is exposed to an unauthorized party due to internal errors.

The most common causes of data leaks are human error, misconfigured software, or inadequate security measures.

Data leak prevention is the process used to ensure that sensitive information is not lost, misused, or accessed by unauthorized users.

What Causes Data Leaks

There are a number of common causes of data leaks. In many cases, it’s a combination of human error and technical issues. Some common causes include:

  • Human Error: Employees might accidentally send sensitive information to the wrong recipient, misconfigure databases, or lose devices containing sensitive data.
  • Weak Security Measures: Poor security practices, such as missing security patches, default passwords, password reuse, leaked passwords or insufficient access controls, allow unauthorized access to access sensitive data.
  • Unsecured Websites and Applications: Websites or applications with vulnerabilities can be exploited to access stored data (e.g., Insecure Direct Object Reference or SQL Injection)
  • Server Misconfigurations: Misconfigured servers or cloud storage buckets can accidentally expose sensitive data leading to data theft.
  • Phishing Attacks: Social engineering attacks can be used to trick employees into revealing sensitive information through deceptive emails or messages.
  • Third-Party Vendors: Organizations often share data with vendors, partners, and contractors. If these third parties have weak security, data can be leaked through their systems.
  • Insider Threats: Malicious insiders may intentionally leak data for personal gain, to harm the organization, or as a form of protest.
  • Lost or Stolen Devices: Laptops, smartphones, or external storage devices containing sensitive data that are lost or stolen can lead to unauthorized access to sensitive data.

The Difference Between Data Leaks and Data Breaches

Data leaks and data breaches are terms often used interchangeably, but they have distinct differences.

A data leak is caused by an unintentional exposure of sensitive data, while a data breach is caused by a deliberate attack.

While data leaks are often at least partially caused by human error, data breaches normally involve an attacker intentionally breaking into a system to steal data.

A common example of a data leak is an employee accidentally sending an email containing personal information to the wrong recipient or a misconfigured S3 bucket that allows public access.

Data leaks and data breaches can lead to the same results. The main difference is the intent: a data leak is typically an accident, while a data breach is intentional and involves malicious actions to access or steal data.

RECOMMENDED READING: How to prevent a data breach in your company

What types of data are at risk?

All types of sensitive data can be a target for a data leak. The most common types of data leaked include:

  1. Login Credentials: Usernames, passwords, and other authentication data that can provide access to various systems and accounts.
  2. Personal Identifiable Information (PII): This includes names, addresses, social security numbers, birthdates, and other information that can be used to identify an individual.
  3. Emails and Communications: Private emails, internal messages, and other forms of communication that may contain sensitive content.
  4. Financial Information: Details such as credit card numbers, bank account information, transaction histories, and tax records are often targeted in data leaks.
  5. Health Records: Medical histories, treatment information, insurance details, and other health-related information are highly sensitive and can be leaked.
  6. Intellectual Property: Trade secrets, patents, proprietary research, product designs, and other forms of intellectual property can be exposed.
  7. Corporate Data: Leaked business strategies, financial reports, employee records, and other internal corporate information can lead to data theft.
  8. Government and Legal Documents: Classified information, contracts, legal documents, and other government-related data.

The specific type of data that gets leaked will vary depending on the nature of the organization, the source of the leak, and the motivations of the attackers responsible for the leak.

Regardless of the type, leaked data can lead to serious consequences for organizations, including identity theft, financial loss, legal issues, and reputational damage.

Examples of data leaks

Data leaks are quite a common occurrence. It’s an issue that affects both small businesses and large enterprises. Here are a few notable examples:

  • Atlassian Data Leak: Atlassian experienced a data leak when threat actors used stolen employee credentials to steal data from a third-party vendor. The leaked data included thousands of employee records and building floorplans.
  • Colonial Pipeline Breach: The Colonial Pipeline, one of the largest fuel pipelines in the US, was shut down due to a ransomware attack by the group DarkSide. The initial access to the company’s network was gained using a single compromised VPN password. The breach led to a temporary fuel shortage in parts of the United States
  • Verizon Customer Data Exposure: Over 14 million customers' personal details were exposed due to a third-party vendor’s mistake, leaving sensitive data open on an unprotected Amazon S3 cloud server​
  • FedEx Customer Data Exposure: Personal information of thousands of customers was exposed after an unsecured AWS S3 server was left accessible without a password​

14 tips to prevent data leaks

While there are no silver bullets to stop all data leaks, the following steps will help reduce the risk and mitigate the impact:

  1. Segment the network: Divide your network into segments to make it harder for an attacker to move laterally across the entire network to access sensitive information
  2. Access controls: Use role-based access controls (RBAC) to ensure employees only have access to the data and systems necessary for their roles.
  3. Enforce strong authentication: Implement multi-factor authentication (MFA) to ensure only authorized users can access sensitive data and systems.
  4. Password Managers: Mandate the use of a password manager throughout the organization. Ensure that the password manager is used to generate and store strong passwords.
  5. Encryption: Encrypt sensitive data both at rest and in transit.
  6. Maintain an accurate asset inventory: Ensure you have a complete and updated list of all assets associated with your organization. Only when you know where your sensitive data resides can you apply appropriate security measures like access controls, patching, and data loss prevention (DLP) solutions.
  7. Regular Software Updates: Keep all systems and software up-to-date with the latest security patches.
  8. Endpoint Protection: Secure all endpoints (e.g., computers, mobile devices, personal devices) that access the company network with appropriate security measures to prevent unauthorized access and data leakage.
  9. Secure Configuration Management: Ensure that all systems (including cloud-based assets) are securely configured and regularly audited for compliance with security policies and standards.
  10. Employee Training: Educate employees about the importance of data security and common threats like phishing scams and social engineering. Regular training can help identify suspicious activity and prevent accidental data leaks.
  11. Incident Response Plan: Have a well-defined incident response plan in place to quickly respond to and mitigate the impact of a data breach.
  12. Vendor Management: Assess the security practices of your third-party vendors to ensure they meet your organization’s security standards. Regularly monitor and audit their compliance.
  13. Physical Security: Implement physical security measures, such as locks, security cameras, and restricted access areas, to prevent unauthorized access to premises and devices.
  14. Dark web monitoring: Continuously monitor the dark web for leaked employee, customer, and vendor credentials and session tokens. Stolen credentials are often the easiest way for malicious users to gain initial access to their targets. Stolen session tokens can be used to bypass both the login and MFA requirements to gain unauthorized access.

Need visibility into your organization’s leaked data? Book a demo to see how Breachsense enables security teams to identify and mitigate data breaches before criminals exploit them.

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