Data Loss vs. Data Leaks: What's the Difference?

Edward Kost
Edward Kost
updated May 13, 2022

Data loss refers to the unwanted removal of sensitive information either due to an information system error, or theft by cybercriminals. Data leaks are unauthorized exposures of sensitive information through vulnerabilities on the digital landscape.

Data leaks are more complex to detect and remediate, they usually occur at the interface of critical systems, both internally and throughout the vendor network.

In cybersecurity, the terms data leak, data breach, and data loss are often incorrectly used interchangeably. Though their definitions slightly overlap, these terms refer to very different events.

Before Data Loss Prevention (DLP) and data leak remediation solutions can be discussed, this confusion should be cleared up with the correct definitions.

What is a Data Breach?

A data breach occurs when sensitive information is accessed by an unauthorized party or stolen by cybercriminals.

what is a data breach

Data breaches are, unfortunately, common occurrences that are also burdensome on the economy. The global cost of data breaches in 2021 is expected to reach $6 trillion annually. This amount has doubled from $3 trillion back in 2015.

What is Data Loss?

Data loss includes incidents where sensitive data is misplaced and cannot be retrieved as well as instances of theft through cyberattacks or insider threats (a type of cyber threat).

what is data loss

Because the latter description overlaps with the data breach definition, the difference between these terms is usually misunderstood.

The average downtime cost during a data loss incident is almost $4,500/minute.

What is a Data Leak?

A data leak is the unintentional exposure of sensitive information either at rest or in transit. This could occur on the internet or on physical devices such as hard drives and laptops.

what is a data leak

What is Data Loss Prevention (DLP)?

Data loss prevention (DLP) is a set of strategies that prevent sensitive data from being transmitted beyond a set boundary limit. This effort can be achieved with data loss prevention software or a security framework to control the flow of sensitive data between end-users and internal resources.

Data loss prevention is not just a security best practice, because it concerns the Personal Identifiable Information (PHI) of customers, it's enforced by different regulatory standards such as HIPAA, PCI-DSS, the Data Protection Act, GDPR, and even the new cybersecurity executive order signed by President Biden.

What's the Difference Between Data Leaks and Data Breaches?

Data leaks are usually caused by organizations accidentally exposing sensitive data through security vulnerabilities, Such incidents are not initiated by cyberattackers.

Data breaches, on the other hand, are usually the result of a cybercriminal's persistence to compromise sensitive resources.

Data leaks could develop into data breaches. If a data leak is discovered by cyber criminals it could provide them with the necessary intelligence to execute a successful data breach.

This is why it's so important to shut data leaks down immediately.

Another differentiator between these two events is the confidence of public exposure. When sensitive data is stolen in a data breach, it's usually dumped on the dark web which is clear evidence that it has reached the masses.

Data leaks, on the other hand, can remain exposed for a long period of time without knowing who accessed it and whether it was disclosed to the public. This troublesome uncertainly can be removed with CyberResearch by UpGuard.

CyberResearch offers customers the support of expert analysts that constantly monitor the dark web for data leak instances, removing anxiety over possible sensitive data exposure on criminal forums.

What Causes Data Leaks?

The vast number of instances that could result in data leakage can be split into two primary categories - overlooked vulnerabilities and human elements.

1. Overlooked Vulnerabilities

Data leaks most commonly occur accidentally, outside the monitoring boundaries of typical information security programs.

These could be:

2. Human Elements

Humans are the weakest points of every cybersecurity architecture. With the correct approach, any staff member can be tricked into leaking sensitive credentials to cybercriminals,

This is usually achieved through phishing attacks, where a seemingly innocent email or website infected with malicious links is presented to a victim. Upon interacting with these links, staff members leak sensitive internal login information that could arm cybercriminals for a devastating data breach.

Even if just an internal username is leaked to cybercriminals, this could still lead to a data breach if supplemented with password guessing tactics like brute force tactics.

Data leaks are also caused by negligent behavior such as using weak passwords and storing them in unsecure locations like a post-it note, on a mobile device, or a public-facing online document.

How to Prevent Data Leaks

To prevent data leaks, solutions need to be tailored for each primary data leak category - human elements and overlooked exposures.

How to Prevent Data Leaks Caused by Human Elements

To prevent staff from undermining security program investments, cyber that awareness training should be implemented in the workplace to teach staff how to recognize common cybercriminal tactics.

Each of the following common attack methods links to a post that can be used for cybercrime awareness training:

Intentional data leaks caused by insider threats are difficult to detect. To do this with a high confidence of accuracy, behavioral analytics software powered by machine learning is required. Such solutions detect potentially malicious activity against an established baseline of safe behavior.

A more cost-effect approach is to only share sensitive information with those that absolutely require it. This security framework is known as Privileged Access Management (PAM).

How to Prevent Data Leaks Caused by Overlooked Vulnerabilities

To prevent such common data leaks, organizations should implement monitoring solutions capable of securing the entire attack surface, both internal and external. This will allow vulnerabilities that could leak sensitive data to be promptly detected and remediated.

Monitoring solutions should, at the very least, track activity across sensitive networks such as systems of records, data banks, privileged access accounts, and key applications.

For the most comprehensive data leak security, this effort should be coupled with an additional level of defense that detects and shuts down data leaks caused by digital transformation.

Learn more about data leakage prevention.

How to Prevent Data Breaches

Data breaches can be prevented through the rapid detection and remediation of security vulnerabilities exposing sensitive resources -both directly within the internal network, and indirectly throughout the vendor network.

Intrusion detection solutions, such as Honeytokens can also be implemented to alert unauthorized sensitive data access attempts. If coupled with a potent Incident Response Plan (IRP), this effort could prevent data breach, data loss, and data leaks.

A cause of data breaches that isn't well known is overlooked software backdoors. Backdoor access permits software providers to bypass security measures to push necessary patch updates to end-users. This also allows instant remote access for troubleshooting.

Sometimes these backdoors are accidentally left open by software providers, which provides cybercriminals a gateway to instantly access sensitive resources without having to contend with security barriers.

To prevent cybercriminals from nullifying your cybersecurity efforts all software backdoors should be discovered and removed.

Learn how to detected and remove backdoors.

Strategies for Data Loss Prevention (DLP)

The most effective Data Loss Prevention methods address all modes of sensitive data in servers and cloud storage - both at rest and in motion.

Updated antivirus software and correctly configured firewalls are basic expectations. Beyond this, a DLP framework should be implemented.

The essential features of an effective DLP framework are listed below:

  • Data Leak detection - Detected data leaks could indicate possible flaws in  DLP strategies. To correctly assess all dimensions of a DLP program, a data leak solution should be capable of monitoring third-party vendor data leaks.
  • Endpoint Security - This is especially important in light of the proliferation of remote work. Sophisticated endpoint agents can detect and control information transfer between end-users, external parties and internal networks. Consider an Endpoint Detection and Response (EDR) solution.
  • Data Encryption - Both at motion and in rest
  • Privileged Access Management (PAM) - Only end-users that absolutely require access to sensitive resources should be given access to them. Privileged Access control efforts should also be secured to prevent Privilege Escalation.

Prevent Data Leaks, Data Breaches, and Data Loss with UpGuard

CyberResearch by UpGuard is the best solution for mitigating all forms of sensitive data comprise.

The success of CyberResearch is attributed to its inclusion of the entire third-party attack surface which accounts for almost 80% of data breaches impacting organizations.

CyberResearch also offers the support of a team of expert analysts to allow rapid scaling of Third-Party Risk Management (TPRM) efforts at a minimal cost.

CLICK HERE to book a FREE demo of CyberResearch and experience the peace of mind of unprecedented sensitive data protection.


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