What are the main causes of data breaches?

All business owners fear, or should fear, the possibility of a data breach. Overnight, your business could lose millions of dollars, ruin your reputation, and put the identity of your customers at risk. If you’re lucky, you may 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, you could ruin your business and even get you legal trouble.

Fortunately, most data breaches are easy to prevent.

In case you’re unfamiliar, a data breach is just the common name for a specific type of security breach in which an unauthorized party steals, copies, or views private or confidential data. In other words, the information you are trying to keep secret falls into the hands of someone else.

As you will 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 that occur due to genius-level cybercriminals and multi-billion dollar hacking operations, the truth is that most data breaches are exploitative in nature and led to performed by amateurs.

That means even the most basic strategies should be able to protect you from most data breach threats.

Let’s take a look at the most common threats and the main causes of data breaches around the world.

Weak and stolen passwords

Your password isn’t something you spend a lot of time thinking about if you’re outside of IT, but it’s the lynchpin of any security strategy. If your password is easy to guess, someone without any technical knowledge could guess it and gain unauthorized access to your systems. If your password is short or contains easily identifiable patterns (such as “1234”), a simple algorithm may be able to crack it. And if you use the same password on a variety of different platforms, including a mix of personal and professional systems, a single breach could expose all systems on that network.

The best approach is to choose a long string of characters for your password, including a combination of different numbers, symbols, uppercase and lowercase letters, with no predictable patterns or words. You should also use a different password for each application and you should never give your password to anyone, even perceived authorities. You should also educate all employees at your establishment to practice these same password habits, as even a weak link can result in your preaching.

Third-party and application vulnerabilities

Some data breaches are the result of a third party gaining access to a system through a “back door” of some kind. If there is a roundabout way to access a data table or a workaround that might grant an unauthorized user access to the system, a smart enough hacker can figure it out.

These are the usual culprits here:

  • Outdated software. When software developers discover that there is a backdoor or security vulnerability in their software, they generally create and issue a patch as soon as possible, warning the world of the possibilities. If you don’t download that patch, the vulnerability will remain, and many malicious cybercriminals will be waiting to exploit it. Even outdated plugins in your website builder it 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 badly coded, or if the developers don’t care enough to issue regular patches, security vulnerabilities could also be a concern. That is why it is important to work only with accredited industry authorities who have experience and a history of responsibility.
  • Bad configuration. Sometimes security vulnerabilities arise due to poor configuration or user errors during installation and integration. It is important to have a professional configure these high-level systems.

Malicious software

If even a single device on your network is infected with malware, that malware could spread to your other devices and allow an external user to access your most important data. There are several types of malware in circulation, but they all need a chance to get installed.

There are many ways in which a user can be tricked into downloading and installing this type of software, often without even realizing that they are doing so. For example, you may be tricked into downloading an email attachment because it appears to be from an authority. You can plug in a flash drive that you found in the parking lot to see what the device contains. You can also connect the device to a public network, indirectly granting access to the people around you.

Anti-malware software can be helpful in mitigating some of these threats and identifying and removing the malware once it has been installed. However, it is still important to train your employees to recognize the threat of malware and the best ways to prevent it. A handful of best practices is all that is needed to minimize the threat to a reasonable level.

Social engineering

It’s easy to rule out 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 in a high-visibility vest and clipboard starts asking you questions, they will probably start to provide answers. And if someone claims to be an engineer for a technology company that you use, one of your employees may entrust you with confidential information.

Because social engineering comes in so many different forms, there is no comprehensive strategy to eliminate the possibility of it developing. However, you cannot educate and train your employees to be attentive to this type of scheme.

Vengeful (or greedy) insiders

Most business owners think that data breaches happen externally; some infamous third party in Russia or some kid across the country with a vengeance is trying to break in. But just as often, data breach threats come from within. If you think about it, it makes sense; Insiders already have unprecedented access to their data, so they are in a position to misuse that access comfortably.

Internal threats themselves They come in many forms, such as:

  • Disgruntled employees, try to get revenge on a company that they believe has wronged them.
  • Deliberately ignorant parties, you did not pay attention in the data breach prevention class.
  • Corporate espionage / collusion, who are working with other companies to sabotage this brand.
  • Income seekers, who just want to make some extra money stealing / selling data.

Poor permission management

Do all your users need to have access to all your data at all times? The answer is clearly “no”. It is a good security habit to limit access to data and permissions only to the people who need that information. Poor permission management can make it possible for a low-level employee to gain access to confidential and privileged data that they shouldn’t be able to see.

Physical threats

Data security It seems that it is confined to the digital realm, but this is not necessarily the case. Sometimes data breaches occur due to a physical threat or a physical incident. If someone leaves your device unattended in a coffee shop, someone can easily steal it and take advantage of whatever information is on the screen. If someone enters your password in plain sight, the spy party can immediately gain access to one of your systems. That is why it is important to have physical security protocols in place in your organization.

Fortunately, most of these data breach threats can be prevented with a few inexpensive and easy-to-manage strategies. That being said, it is also important to have a data breach response plan instead. Make sure you have early warning systems in place to alert you to unauthorized user access, suspicious activity, and ongoing threats. It is also important that you have a response plan on how to extinguish a threat once identified.

Nate nead

Nate nead

Nate Nead is the CEO and managing member of Nead, LLC, a consulting firm that provides strategic advisory services in multiple disciplines, including finance, marketing, and software development. For more than a decade, Nate had provided strategic guidance on M&A, equity acquisition, technology, and marketing solutions for some of the best-known online brands. He and his team advise Fortune 500 clients and SMBs alike. The team is based in Seattle, Washington; El Paso, Texas and West Palm Beach, Florida.


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