Every business owner fears, or should fear, the possibility of a data breach. Overnight, your business could lose millions of dollars, ruin its reputation, and put the identities of your customers at risk. If you’re lucky, you might be able to clean up the mess with a few million dollars and a few months of heavy lifting. If you’re not so lucky, it could ruin your business and even get you in legal trouble.
Fortunately, most data breaches are easy to prevent.
In case you aren’t familiar, a data breach is just the common name for a specific type of security violation in which private or confidential data is stolen, copied, or viewed by an unauthorized party. In other words, the information you’re trying to keep secret falls into the hands of someone else.
As you’ll see, there are many scenarios in which a data breach can occur and many root causes that can eventually lead to a data breach. While most people think of data breaches occurring because of genius-level cybercriminals and billion-dollar hacking operations, the truth is, most data breaches are exploitative in nature and carried out by amateurs.
That means even the most basic strategies should be able to protect you from the majority of data breach threats.
Let’s take a look at the most common threats and biggest causes of data breaches worldwide.
Weak and Stolen Passwords
Your password is not something you spend much time thinking about if you’re outside the IT department, but it’s the linchpin of any security strategy. If your password is easy to guess, someone with no technical knowledge whatsoever might be able to guess it and gain unauthorized access to your systems. If your password is short or if it contains easily identifiable patterns (like “1234”), a simple algorithm may be able to crack it. And if you use the same password across a variety of different platforms, including a mix of both personal and professional systems, a single breach could leave every system in that network exposed.
The best approach is to choose a long string of characters for your password, including a mix of different numbers, symbols, uppercase letters, and lowercase letters, with no predictable patterns or words. You should also be using a different password for every single application, and you should never give your password out to anyone – even perceived authorities. You also need to educate every employee in your establishment to practice these same password habits, as even one weak link can result did he preach.
Application and Third-Party Vulnerabilities
Some data breaches are the result of an outsider gaining access to a system through a “backdoor” of some kind. If there’s an indirect way to access a data table or a workaround that can grant an unauthorized user system access, a clever enough hacker may be able to figure it out.
These are the usual culprits here:
- Outdated software. When software developers figure out that there’s a backdoor or a security vulnerability in their software, they usually create and issue a patch as soon as possible, warning the world about the possibilities. If you don’t download that patch, the vulnerability is going to remain – and plenty of ill-intentioned cybercriminals will be waiting to exploit it. Even outdated plugins in your website builder could Present enough of a threat to bring down your entire website. The solution is to keep everything up-to-date at all times.
- Poor coding. If the application is poorly coded, or if the developers don’t care enough to issue regular patches, security vulnerabilities could also be a concern. That’s why it’s important to work only with reputable authorities in the industry who have experience and a history of accountability.
- Poor configuration. Sometimes, security vulnerabilities emerge because of poor configuration or user mistakes during setup and integration. It’s important to have a professional setup these high-level systems.
If even a single device on your network is infected with malware, that malware could spread to your other devices and allow an outside user access to your most important data. There are several types of malware in circulation, but they all need an opportunity to be installed.
There are many ways a user could be deceived into downloading and installing this type of software, often without even realizing they’re doing it. For example, you might be tricked into downloading an attachment from an email because it looks like it’s coming from an authority. You might plug in a flash drive you found in the parking lot to see what’s contained on the device. You could also connect the device to a public network, indirectly granting access to the people around you.
Anti-malware software can be useful in mitigating some of these threats and identifying and removing malware once it’s been installed. However, it’s still important to train your employees to recognize the threat of malware and the best ways of preventing it. A handful of best practices are all it takes to minimize the threat to a reasonable level.
It’s easy to write off the possibility of social engineering; who would fall for such an obvious scam? But social engineers are very good at what they do, and most people are inherently trusting by nature. If someone with a high visibility vest and a clipboard starts asking you questions, you’re probably going to start providing answers. And if someone claims to be an engineer from a tech company you use, one of your employees may trust them with sensitive information.
Because social engineering comes in so many different forms, there’s no comprehensive strategy to eliminate the possibility of it unfolding. However, you can’t educate and train your employees to be on the lookout for this type of scheme.
Vindictive (or Greedy) Insiders
Most business owners think about data breaches as happening externally; some nefarious third party in Russia or some kid across the country with a vendetta is trying to break in. But just as frequently, data breach threats come from the inside. If you think about it, it makes sense; insiders already have unprecedented access to your data, so they’re in a position to misuse that access conveniently.
Insider threats themselves come in many forms, such as:
- Disgruntled employees, trying to get back at a company they feel has wronged them.
- Willfully ignorant parties, who didn’t pay attention in data breach prevention class.
- Corporate espionage/colluding parties, who are working with other companies to sabotage this brand.
- Income seekers, who just want to make some extra money on the side by stealing/selling data.
Poor Permission Management
Do all of your users need access to all of your data at all times? The answer is clearly “no.” It’s a good security habit to limit data access and permissions to only the people who need that information. Poor permissions management can make it possible for a low-level employee to gain access to confidential and privileged data they shouldn’t be able to see.
Data security seems like it’s confined to the digital realm – but this isn’t necessarily the case. Sometimes, data breaches occur because of a physical threat or a physical incident. If someone leaves their device at a coffee shop unattended, someone can easily steal it and take advantage of whatever information was on screen. If someone enters their password in clear view of someone else, the spying party may immediately gain access to one of your systems. That’s why it’s important to have physical security protocols in place at your organization.
Thankfully, most of these data breach threats can be prevented with some inexpensive and easily manageable strategies. That said, it’s also important to have a data breach response plan in place. Make sure you have early detection systems that alert you to unauthorized user access, suspicious activity, and threats in progress. It’s also important that you have a response plan for how to shut down a threat once one is identified.