The trend of global data breach events is steep and still continuing to tilt upwards. Mitigating these events involves comprehensive management of the entire attack surface, including the third, and even fourth-party vendor network.

While the proliferation of cybercrime is forcing organizations to improve their cybersecurity programs, many are still overlooking one of the primary causes of data breaches - data leaks.

To learn the common causes of these critical security events, and how to mitigate data breaches by addressing them, read on.

What is a Data Leak?

A data leak is an overlooked exposure of sensitive data. These exposures could occur physically - like a post-it note containing login information - or, more commonly, electronically - through software vulnerabilities.

When cybercriminals discover data leaks, they could use the information to launch a successful cyberattack - especially if the exposed data contains Personal Identifiable Information (PII).

What's the Difference Between a Data Leak and a Data Breach

Data leaks are not initiated by cybercriminals. They fall through overlooked vulnerabilities and remain unknowingly exposed to the public. These exposures could remain for years before they're eventually discovered by either cybercriminals or security teams.

Data breaches, on the other hand, are entirely caused by cybercriminals. They are the intended objectives of planned cyberattacks.

difference between data leaks and data breaches
When sensitive data is stolen from either a data breach or a ransomware attack and published on the dark web, these events are also classified as data leaks.

Learn how to defend against ransomware attacks >

Though they have different origins, both data leaks and data breaches could result in the compromise of sensitive data. Data leaks usually occur before data breaches and provide cybercriminals with the necessary ammunition to make cyberattacks happen much faster.

But not all data leaks develop into data breaches. Some events could facilitate the deployment of ransomware attacks (which could be classified as data breaches).

The 6 Most Common Causes of Data Leaks in 2024

Because data leaks make data breaches possible, there's a tight relationship between the causes of both events, so the list below could delineate the origins of either data breaches or data leaks.

To heighten the effectiveness of data breach prevention efforts, information security programs should preference a data leak detection perspective when monitoring attack surfaces. This will naturally uncover and address the security issues fuelling both cyber threats.

Managing vulnerabilities with purely a data breach prevention mindset narrows the field of threat detection, furthering the neglect of critical data leaks.

data breach prevention strategies

The following events are some of the leading causes of data leaks in 2021.

1. Misconfigured Software Settings

Misconfigured software settings could expose sensitive customer records. If the leaking software is popular, millions of users could then be exposed to potential cyberattacks.

This was the cause of the Microsoft Power Apps data leak in 2021.

UpGuard initially discovered the data leak on May 24, 2021. By default, a critical user data access setting was set to ‘off’, exposing at least 38 million records including:

  • Employee information
  • COVID-19 vaccination data
  • COVID-19 contact tracing data

By informing Microsoft of its exposure in a timely manner, UpGuard researchers initiated a rapid remediation response before the data leaks were discovered by cybercriminals. Had this not occurred, millions of users and businesses could have fallen victim to a widespread cyberattack.

This monumental discovery demonstrates the catastrophic potential of overlooked data leaks.

According to Verizon's 2020 data breach report, software misconfiguration, such as those that caused the Microsoft Power Apps exposure and the 2021 Facebook breach, are on the rise.

The rising trend of misconfigurations since 2015 - Source: Verizon 2020 data breach report
The rising trend of misconfigurations since 2015 - Source: Verizon 2020 data breach report

Learn how to reduce data leak false positives.

2. Social Engineering

Data leaks are rarely initiated by cybercriminals, but when they are, it's usually a result of tactical trickery through social engineering.

Social engineering is the use of psychological manipulation in order to garnish sensitive credentials from victims. Phishing is the most common type of social engineering attack, occurring either verbally or electronically.

An example of a verbal phishing scam is a threat actor calling an employee while impersonating an IT technician. The threat actor could request login credentials under the pretence of reinforcing access in response to a critical internal issue.

When coupled with provocations to reflect a sense of company urgency, the performance will seem very believable to an uneducated victim

Experian suffered a data breach impacting 800,000 businesses from a verbal social engineering attack. A cybercriminal posing as one of Experian's clients requested services from the company, which eventually resulted in the release of sensitive customer data.

After personal data is relinquished, hackers could then use the data leak to breach an IT perimeter and complete the initial phase of a cyberattack sequence.

The cyber attack privileged pathway

Because unsuspecting employees are so easily tricked, any type of data that could expand the list of potential victims is a significant threat to data security. This includes seemingly innocuous information, such as phone numbers and social security numbers.

Electronic phishing attacks are more proliferative since they can reach a larger list of victims much faster. The most popular form of social engineering is email phishing.

Phishing emails pose as legitimate communications from reliable sources, but their contents contain infected links. When a user clicks on a phishing email link, they could either initiate the clandestine installation of malware or load a dummy web page designed to steal data.

Phishing emails are becoming increasingly sophisticated and harder to detect, especially when they take advantage of recipient anxieties.

A sudden increase of such immoral practices shadowed the COVID-19 pandemic. Phishing emails detailing fake safety information were sent to victims, some even claiming to be from government agencies and popular healthcare entities.

COVID-19 themed phishing email - Source:
COVID-19 themed phishing email - Source:

The believable designs of these emails, coupled with the reduced skepticism fuelled by hopeful yearnings, resulted in a very high number of data breaches.

3. Recycled Passwords  

In many cases, a single compromised password leads to the compromise of multiple digital solutions because users tend to use the same password across all of their logins.

This poor security practice creates a critical data leak because stolen customer data is usually sold via dark web forums.

You can check whether your emails, passwords, or phone numbers were compromised in historical data breaches by visiting Have I Been Pwned.

If you're an iPhone user, iOS 14's Security Recommendations feature enables you to check if you're reusing passwords so you can change them immediately.

Even partial password information is categorized as a data leak because the remaining portion could be uncovered through brute force methods.

During a brute force attack, multiple username and password combinations are attempted with automation tools until a match is achieved.

Having partial password information decreases the number of required attempts, helping cybercriminals achieve success much faster.

4. Physical Theft of Sensitive Devices

Company devices contain sensitive information, and when these devices fall into the wrong hands, they can be leveraged to facilitate security breaches, or identity theft, leading to data breaches.

For example, a cybercriminal could contact the IT administrator from a stolen laptop and claim that they've forgotten their login information. With the right persuasive tactics, the IT administrator will divulge this information, helping the cybercriminal remotely log into the company's private network.

In such a scenario, the compromised laptop is the attack vector, exposing data leaks connecting the compromised employee to the company's IT administrator.

5.  Software Vulnerabilities

Software vulnerabilities, like zero-day exploits, create convenient pathways into sensitive resources. This circumvents the initial stage of the cyberattack lifecycle, propelling criminals through to the privilege escalation phase of an attack lifecycle - the only remaining stage before a data breach.

Once exploited, these exposures could lead to a number of security incidents, including unauthorized access, malware attacks, social media account compromise, and even credit card theft (see the Equifax data breach).

6. Use of Default Passwords

Many of the factory-standard login credentials that accompany new devices are publically known, even to cybercriminals. Because of this, unchanged factory-standard credentials are classified as data leaks.

IoT (internet of things) devices are most impacted by such exposures. When purchased, these devices come with standard login combinations to support rapid setup.

Common username and password combinations include "admin" or "12345."

Manufacturer instructions usually include a bold warning to change these credentials prior to use, but, unfortunately, they are seldom followed - a bad habit of both small businesses and large enterprises.

Because IoT devices are usually networked together, these data leaks could facilitate a large-scale DDoS attack.

This is exactly what happened in 2016. One of the largest DDoS attacks ever documented was launched against the cybersecurity blog Kerbs on Security.

The botnet that executed the attack comprised of 380,000 IoT devices that were seamlessly hacked through their default passwords.

How Do I Prevent Data Leaks?

To prevent data leaks, cybersecurity programs must include a data protection strategy. Not only will this support user data security compliance with regulatory standards, such as the GDPR, it will also adjust incident response plans to include a data leak remediation strategy.

The following best practices could mitigate data leaks and the data breaches they make possible.

1. Simplify Access Permissions

This shouldn't be confused with forsaking Privileged Access Management. Privileged access management is critical for cybersecurity, the workflow that manages the access levels of each user needs to be simplified.

Complex access permission workflows make it difficult to track each user's access level, making it very easy to accidentally grant a user deeper access than they require.

Audit each user's access levels to ensure that only those that absolutely require it have access to sensitive resources.

After this is complete, run your user access workflow through a very fine filter to eradicate unnecessary complexities.

2. Educate Staff

A data leak prevention strategy should include a primary focus on the most significant security threat to an organization - human error.

To prevent staff from falling for common social engineering tactics, they should be trained on how to accurately recognize when an attack is taking place.

The best form of training is experience. Establish a training program where staff are routinely targeted with controlled social engineering attacks delivered by your security team.

"Failing" a test creates a very impactful and teachable moment that will be remembered for many years.

3. Use Multi-Factor Authentication

Should an employee still fall for cybercriminal trickery after training, compromise could still be avoided with multi-factor authentication.

Multi-factor authentication creates an additional hurdle that could cause employees to rethink their actions during a social engineering attack.

This could be enough to reset a manipulated mindset and encourage staff to seek verification from internal security teams.

3. Encrypt All Data

If data is accidentally leaked, it could have little use to cybercriminals if it is effectively encrypted.

Be sure to use the most secure forms of encryption such as AES encryption and PGP encryption.

4. Use a Password Manager

Default passwords are used because businesses have too many passwords to remember. A password manager conveniently stores all passwords in a single platform. It also creates highly complex password suggestions for each new login, preventing the use of recycled passwords.

5. Implement a Data Leak Detection Solution

Each of the above strategies encourages best practices that could avoid data exposures, but they fail to detect the complex data leaks that might still fall through advanced security loopholes.

To tie off a data leak prevention strategy, best practices should be accompanied by a data leak detection solution.

Data leak detection solutions scan both the surface and the dark web to discover data leaks within cybercriminal interactions. These solutions can either be fully automated or supported by cybersecurity analysts.

The caveat of a fully-automated data leak solution is that, in many instances, these discoveries are false positives that can be ignored. Adding an internal data leak filtering strategy will only overwhelm the already limited bandwidth of security teams, distracting them from critical security tasks requiring immediate attention.

To avoid this, a data leak solution should be supported by cybersecurity analysts that manually evaluate and filter out data leak false positives on behalf of the victim.

UpGuard offers a managed data leak detection service were all discovered internal and third-party leaks are analysed by cybersecurity experts to remove false positives, before being classified as security threats.

Watch the video below for an overview of UpGuard's data leak detection features.

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