What is a Data Leak

What is a Data Leak

Ever wonder what’s the easiest way for hackers to gain access to your network?

Attackers exploit data leaks to find leaked employee credentials and use those to figuratively walk straight through the front door.

In fact, according to the 2023 Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report, leaked or stolen credentials are used in 86% of data breaches.

In this post, we’ll cover what a data leak is, how it happens, how cybercriminals exploit it, and how to prevent data leaks in your organization.

Table of contents:

Data leaks 101

A data leak is a security incident when sensitive data is exposed to an unauthorized party due to internal errors.

This can happen due to various reasons, such as human error, misconfigured software, or inadequate security measures.

Another common example of a data leak is when sensitive data is posted on the dark web following a cyberattack.

No matter the original cause, the consequences are often quite severe, including financial loss, legal penalties, reputational damage, fraud, and identity theft.

What’s the difference between a data leak and a data breach?

The terms “data leak” and “data breach” are 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 caused by human error, data breaches usually 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.

While both a data leak and a data breach can lead to the same results, the key difference is in the intent and method: a data leak is typically accidental, while a data breach is intentional and involves malicious actions to access or steal data.

How do data leaks happen?

Data leaks can happen in various ways, often due to a combination of human error and technical vulnerabilities. Some common causes include:

  1. Misconfigured Security Settings: Incorrectly configured databases, servers, or cloud storage services can inadvertently expose sensitive data to the public or unauthorized users.
  2. Accidental Sharing: Employees may accidentally send sensitive information to the wrong recipient via email, messaging apps, or file-sharing services.
  3. Third-Party Risks: Vendors or partners with access to your data may experience their own leaks, inadvertently exposing your information.
  4. Unsecured Websites and Applications: Websites or applications with poor security measures can be exploited to access stored data (e.g. Insecure Direct Object Reference or SQL Injection)
  5. Phishing Attacks: Employees may be tricked into revealing sensitive information through deceptive emails or messages.
  6. Insider Threats: Disgruntled or careless employees may intentionally or unintentionally leak data
  7. Lost or Stolen Devices: Laptops, smartphones, or external storage devices containing sensitive data can be lost or stolen, leading to data exposure.
  8. Improper Disposal: Failing to properly dispose of or wipe old devices and storage media can leave residual data accessible to anyone who comes into possession of them.

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 secure systems.
  2. Personal Identifiable Information (PII): Names, addresses, Social Security numbers, birth dates, and other personal details that can be used to identify an individual.
  3. Financial Information: Credit card numbers, bank account details, investment records, and any other financial data.
  4. Health Records: Medical histories, treatment information, insurance details, and other sensitive health-related data.
  5. Intellectual Property: Trade secrets, patents, proprietary research, product designs, and other confidential business information.
  6. Emails and Communications: Private emails, messages, and other forms of communication that may contain sensitive content.
  7. Government and Legal Documents: Classified information, legal documents, and other government-related data.
  8. Corporate Data: Business strategies, financial reports, employee records, and other internal corporate information.

Protecting these types of data is crucial to prevent identity theft, financial fraud, reputational damage, and other consequences of a data leak.

How do cybercriminals exploit leaked data?

Depending on the type of information leaked, attackers often exploit data leaks for:

  • Account Takeover: Using stolen login credentials to gain unauthorized access to online accounts, including email, social media, and financial accounts.
  • Credential Stuffing: Using leaked usernames and passwords in automated attacks to gain access to other accounts where individuals may have reused their credentials.
  • Identity Theft: Using PII (personal identifiable information) such as names, addresses, and Social Security numbers to impersonate individuals and commit fraud.
  • Financial Gain: Utilizing stolen financial information like credit card numbers and bank account details to make unauthorized transactions or withdraw funds.
  • Selling on the Dark Web: Trading leaked data on the dark web for profit, where other criminals can purchase it for their own malicious activities.
  • Social Engineering: Leveraging leaked emails and personal information to craft convincing phishing emails or messages that trick victims into revealing sensitive information or downloading malware.
  • Blackmail and Extortion: Threatening to release sensitive or embarrassing information unless the victim pays a ransom.
  • Creating Fake Identities: Using stolen personal information to create fake identities for various illegal activities, such as applying for loans, obtaining medical services, or committing crimes under someone else’s name.

Why do data leaks matter?

Beyond the obvious privacy issues when personal or sensitive data is leaked, there are several other consequences that can affect your organization.

Leaked financial data, such as credit card details or bank account information, can lead to financial fraud and significant monetary losses.

Personal information obtained from data leaks can be used to commit identity theft, causing long-term issues for the affected individuals.

Organizations often suffer from reputational harm as well. The loss of customer trust can severely impact the bottom line.

Depending on the nature of the leaked data, organizations can face regulatory fines and lawsuits for failing to protect sensitive information.

Data leaks can disrupt business operations, especially when critical systems or data are compromised.

Finally, leaked data often provides cybercriminals with valuable information to launch further attacks, such as ransomware or phishing campaigns.

How to Prevent Data Leaks

Preventing data leaks requires a combination of technical controls, employee training, and organizational policies.

As with most things in cybersecurity, it’s extremely important to get the fundementals down right. Make sure you have an updated asset inventory and that all software is regularly updated and patched. Conduct regular security audits and pen tests to identify vulnerabilities and ensure compliance with relevant data protection laws.

Next, identify where your sensitive data is stored and classify its business value. Once you know what needs protecting, set up RBAC (role-based access controls) to limit access to only those who need it. Verify that the data is encrypted both at rest and in transit to protect it from unauthorized access.

Once the basics are covered, deploy DLP (data loss prevention) tools to monitor and control the movement of sensitive data across the network and prevent unauthorized access or transfer. Make sure you have an incident response plan ahead of time to quickly respond to data leaks and mitigate their impact.

Implement a policy requiring the use of password managers and multi-factor authentication to secure user accounts. Beyond your own perimeter, assess the risk of your third-party vendors who have access to your data and ensure they meet your security standards.

Make sure you have continuous dark web monitoring in place to locate any leaked data before criminals have a chance to exploit it.

Need visibility into the dark web to find your leaked data? Book a demo to see how Breachsense enables security teams to identify and mitigate leaked data before it’s exploited.

Related Articles