Knowledge

Data Leakage: Why should you care?

Nowadays, it’s common to hear about yet another high-profile security breach in which critical data is leaked, resulting in damage to the organization’s reputation and bottom line. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to remove all risks in your organization but there are ways to best protect against them and improve your security posture. In this blog, we will explore data leakage, how it differs from a data breach, and how your organization can best protect itself from leakage in the future.

What is Data Leakage?

Data leakage is the unauthorized transmission of data from within an organization to an external destination or recipient. The term can be used to describe data that is transferred electronically or physically. Data leakage threats usually occur via the web and email, but can also occur via mobile data storage devices such as optical media, USB keys, and laptops.

Barely a day goes by without a confidential data breach hitting the headlines. Data leakage, also known as low and slow data theft, is a huge problem for data security, and the damage caused to any organization, regardless of size or industry, can be serious. From declining revenue to a tarnished reputation or massive financial penalties to crippling lawsuits, this is a threat that any organization will want to protect itself from.

data leakage

Top 4 Causes of Data Leakage

Here are some of the issues that can result in data leakage.

Misconfiguration Issues

Configuring a networked data system is complex, especially when it includes application software, cloud services, and machine learning tools. Data configuration processes are essential for ensuring ML algorithms can access the data they need while avoiding unnecessary data exposure. The increasing complexity of the system often results in configuration errors. To help reduce the risk of misconfiguration, you can leverage tools that automate many configuration processes (although you also need to ensure these tools have the right configurations). A single misconfigured router may result in a data leak, depending on the network.

Social Engineering Attacks

Malicious actors often use social engineering techniques to trick privileged users, such as employees, into providing sensitive information. Cybercriminals often use deception — for example, by posing as a co-worker or a member of the IT department and fabricating a reason to provide access credentials. Social engineering attacks often try to steal login data, phone numbers, or the names of employees with privileged access. Users must avoid exposing sensitive information to legitimate users to prevent employees and malicious actors from accessing data they shouldn’t.

Zero-Day Vulnerabilities

Software often contains zero-day vulnerabilities, exposing your organization to risks without your knowledge. Zero-day vulnerabilities can result in persistent threats that leak data undetected for months or years before someone discovers them. Many organizations only become aware of these threats when the news publishes a major breach.

Legacy Techniques and Tools

Despite the various new threats to your data, it’s important to address older attack methods that exploit legacy systems and tools. Modern organizations usually use legacy technologies and physical devices like desktops, USBs, and printers, not just cloud-based tools and Outside SaaS offerings. While you might need these tools to perform legitimate actions (i.e., allowing employees to print out presentations at home), they also pose a major risk. For example, employees could misplace a USB or external storage device containing sensitive information. A malicious actor could steal the device to circumvent the organization’s security perimeter.

Types of Data Leakage

Data leakage is classified based on how the leak occurs or by whom it was perpetrated.

  • Malicious insiders: Unhappy employees or business partners who leave the organization may try to steal data and leak it to competitors, or sell it for a hefty amount on the black market.
  • Physical exposure: Hard drives or USB devices with sensitive content are often left unattended by employees, putting data at risk.
  • Electronic communication: Many organizations are embracing bring your own devices (BYOD) policies and encouraging employees to use their own devices at work. Hackers take advantage of this and try to trick the user into clicking unassuming links, giving the hackers access to the devices and the data on them.
  • Accidental leakage: The most common cause of data leaks is human error. Frequent mishaps include employees sending emails containing critical information to the wrong recipients, flaws in security policies such as excessive permissions to critical files, sensitive data left exposed due to unpatched vulnerabilities in the software, etc.

data leakage

Ways to protect your organization from Data Leakage

Here are some essential steps your organization can take to best protect your sensitive data from being leaked.

Identify critical data and information

Knowing where your sensitive and critical data is located is the first step to securing your network. If you don’t know where important data lives, then how can you best protect it? Businesses need to know how much data they have, where it is, and a universal data coding system to ensure sensitive data is clearly marked and understood by everyone in the organization. Consider utilizing data loss prevention software to protect the sensitive information within your network and help you identify any disruptions or leaks in your data.

Evaluate access and activity

Once you’ve effectively identified the sensitive data, then you must monitor and evaluate the access and activity associated with the data. Having visibility to discover, track, and monitor the data across your business in real-time provides a clear picture of your network and helps to prevent data leakage. In addition, having the ability to identify any anomalous behavior — such as granting secure access, copying or deleting information, or suspicious downloads — will help prevent data breaches well before they happen.

Monitor the security posture of vendors

When you work with vendors, their risks and vulnerabilities become your own. Before working with a vendor, it’s important to conduct a third-party risk assessment to identify and understand the kinds of risks associated with their business. From there, it’s your responsibility to monitor the vendors’ security posture to check for new risks or vulnerabilities. Cyber threats are changing every day as new technologies challenge cybersecurity efforts, and maintaining continuous compliance can be difficult for many vendors that don’t update their networks regularly. Therefore, it’s the responsibility of your organization to ensure compliance and a strong security posture while working with third-party vendors.

Protect all endpoints

An endpoint is any device that is connected to the last location, or ending point, of a data transfer. While this may sound self-explanatory, the increase of internet-connected devices has multiplied the number of endpoints making it much harder to protect all endpoints — especially with remote work spanning internationally. Every device connected to a network is now a security risk. So with that said, if a cybercriminal gains access to a device from poor endpoint security, they can easily migrate into the network. Employee education is extremely important to prevent data leakage. Businesses must train their employees to understand the importance of endpoint security and how cybercriminals target employee negligence to break into secure networks (via phishing attacks, whaling attacks, etc.).

Utilize data encryption

Data encryption is when data is translated into another code or form, and only those with access to a decryption key or password can read it. Therefore, data encryption can prevent cyber criminals from easily reading sensitive data in the event of data leakage. It’s important to note that while data encryption is a useful tool in the event of a leakage, it shouldn’t be the only tool to prevent a full-blown breach. Organizations should use data encryption in tandem with the other best practices we’ve listed above.

Differences Between a Data Leak and a Data Breach

It might seem insignificant, but it’s important to understand the difference between a data leak and a data breach. Both can be costly and have critical consequences, but a data leak involves much more negligence than a data breach. Human error is a significant risk for organizations, and a data leak is often the result of insider threats, unintentional but just as damaging as a data breach.

Data breaches are caused by unforeseen risks or unknown vulnerabilities in software, hardware, or security infrastructure. An attacker must find the vulnerability and exploit it, which is why administrators must continually update outdated software and install security patches or updates immediately.

A data leak results in a data breach, but it does not require exploiting an unknown vulnerability. Typically, human error is behind a data leak. An excellent example of a data leak is a misconfigured Amazon Web Services (AWS) S3 bucket. S3 buckets are cloud storage spaces used to upload files and data. They can be configured for public access or locked down so that only authorized users can access data. It’s common for administrators to misconfigure access, thereby disclosing data to any third party. Misconfigured S3 buckets are so common that there are sites that scan for misconfigured S3 buckets and post them for anyone to review.

data leakage

Conclusion

Performance is largely determined by the quality of the data, so it is important to ensure that they are prepared before training the model. Nevertheless, this is a delicate stage, as it is prone to data leakage. Great care must be taken to ensure that no information contained in the test set is used to train the model. To ensure a model’s true performance, we can only rely on this approach.

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