Data theft is a major cybercrime whose growth has been fuelled by rapid digital advancements in recent years. It involves the illegal storage or exfiltration of data or financial information. This can include passwords, algorithms, software code, proprietary technologies, or other sensitive data.
To help you better protect your organization against data theft, this article will discuss what data theft is, how it occurs, how you can prevent it and maintain stronger data security.
What Is Data Theft?
Data theft or information theft refers to the act of stealing information stored on corporate databases, computers, servers, or electronic devices to obtain sensitive information or compromise privacy. The stolen data could be anything from online passwords, social security numbers, medical records, credit card numbers, bank account information, and so on.
Data theft often occurs because cybercriminals want to either use the information for identity theft or sell it on the dark web. Once a hacker or threat actor gains unauthorized access to personal data, corporate data, or any other confidential information, they can alter, delete, or prevent the owners from accessing it.
The terms data leak and data breach are often utilized interchangeably when defining data theft. Even so, a data breach isn't the same as a data leak. Data breach refers to intentional cyber attacks. On the other hand, a data leak is a scenario in which sensitive data is exposed accidentally on the internet or through the loss of hard drives and other storage devices—this gives the threat actors unauthorized access to confidential information without lifting a finger.
How Does Data Theft Occur?
Cybercriminals use a wide range of techniques to steal data. Here are some of the ways that data theft occurs:
- Exploiting Weak Passwords - Using the same password for multiple accounts or a password that's easy to guess, such as your birth year, makes it easy for threat actors to access your data. Practicing poor password habits such as sharing it with other people or writing it on a piece of paper (it's recommended that you choose a memorable password) can also result in data loss.
- Social Engineering - Social engineering is another form of cyber attack used by hackers to steal data. While there are several forms of social engineering, phishing is the most prevalent. It takes place when a malicious actor masquerades as a trusted entity to trick the victim into opening a text message, email, or instant message.
- Insider Threat - An organization's employees can sometimes have access to confidential customer data. A disgruntled or rogue employee could potentially alter, steal, or sell that data. Insider threats can also come from contractors, partners, or former employees who have access to an organization's sensitive data.
- System Vulnerabilities - Improperly installed network systems and poorly written software applications create vulnerabilities that threat actors can exploit and use to steal data. Failure to update your antivirus software can also create security loopholes.
- Compromised Downloads - When someone downloads data or applications from compromised sites that are infected with malware, they give cybercriminals unauthorized access to their devices, leaving them susceptible to data theft.
- Server Problems - When an organization's servers or databases are poorly protected or secured, they can access sensitive information such as customers' personal information.
- Human Error - Data breaches aren't always caused by malicious actions. There are times when they come about as a result of human error. Some of the common errors include sending sensitive files to the wrong person, attaching the wrong document, or leaving sensitive information online without instituting password restrictions.
- Physical Theft - Data theft can also occur due to physical actions. These may include the theft of confidential paperwork or devices such as phones, laptops, or storage devices.
- Publicly Available Information - Today, a lot of information is available in the public domain, also called open-source intelligence (OSINT). This can be through internet searches or looking through social media posts.
What are the Consequences of Data Theft?
The consequences of data theft can go beyond the immediate financial losses. Businesses that become victims of data theft can suffer in the following ways:
- Reputational damage - Brands with a history of becoming data theft victims will have a bad reputation and find it difficult to attract new customers.
- Loss of customers - When your business becomes a data theft victim, the chances are that existing customers will leave because they don't feel safe.
- Ransomware demands - Attackers sometimes use ransomware to hold their victim's information and demand a hefty fee to give back the data. Even so, paying the ransom to get back the data isn't a guaranteed solution.
- Lawsuits - Organizations that mishandle their data or have poor security practices can be subject to legal action from the affected customers.
- High recovery costs - Patching systems and recovering data following a data breach can be expensive.
- Downtime - An organization may be unable to use an existing system following a data breach until it is corrected. The downtime can negatively impact employee productivity, consequently hurting an organization's bottom line.
- Regulatory fines - Depending on your industry, you can face steep fines from regulatory bodies such as HIPAA and GDPR for failing to meet their security mandates.
8 Tips to Ensure Your Data Stays Safe
Given the rising costs of data breaches, it is vital that organizations establish sound data risk protection measures to keep their data safe. Some of the measures they can put in place include:
1. Use Secure Passwords
Hackers can easily crack passwords, especially if you don't use strong ones. A strong password has a combination of upper-case letters, lower case letters, numbers, and symbols. With that in mind, you should ensure that your password is memorable to minimize the chances of forgetting it.
Avoid writing your passwords on a piece of paper or on your phone, which can make it easier for people to potentially find. If you have several passwords to remember, you can use a password manager to keep track of them.
Additionally, don’t use the same password for every account. One stolen password could compromise all of your accounts. Remember to change your passwords frequently –every six months or so.
2. Use Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
Multi-factor authentication provides you with an additional layer of security beyond the standard username plus password combination. Multi-factor authentication requires two or more forms of identification to access something. This may include a password and a text code sent to your smartphone or mobile device.
3. Keep Programs and Systems Updated
Ensure that all your software programs and operating systems are always up-to-date. This involves installing security updates, operating systems, web browsers, and software programs the moment they become available.
4. Don’t Use Public Wi-Fi Networks
Whereas public Wi-Fi may seem convenient, they aren't always secure. Public Wi-Fi hotspots are usually targeted by cybercriminals and hackers who can use them to steal data. To stay safe on public Wi-Fi, avoid sending or opening sensitive data, turn off file sharing and Bluetooth, and use a firewall and a VPN.
5. Exercise Caution When Sharing Personal Information
Ensure that you share your data on a need-to-know basis. This means that you only share personal information such as phone number, social security number (SSN), passport number, etc., with trusted entities that have security measures that will ensure that your data remains safe.
6. Monitor Your Accounts
Regularly monitor your accounts to determine whether any anomalies have taken place. Remember that you may not receive a notification when an organization you transact with becomes a data theft victim. As such, it's advisable to practice vigilance yourself. Also, you should close all unused accounts.
7. Manage Your Endpoints
Given the increased adoption of remote work and the use of personal devices, it's important to enhance your security posture so as to ensure that your data stays safe in the event that a device gets lost or is compromised.
8. Monitor Employee Activity
By having centralized visibility into activity logs and user access permissions, IT teams can better manage network traffic and activity. Advanced tools such as access control and automated incident response can also be used to further ensure the safety of critical information.
Recent Occurrences of Data Theft
Cybersecurity attacks that compromise massive volumes of data are usually big news. Such attacks usually affect millions of people and have heavy financial repercussions. Some of the common cases of data theft in recent times include:
- Yahoo: In September 2016, Yahoo revealed that 500 million users had been compromised in a 2014 breach. Yahoo claimed that the data theft came about due to an unauthorized party forging cookies to gain access to user accounts without needing a password.
- Equifax: In 2017, Equifax became a victim of data theft. In this attack, the personal data of 143 million customers was compromised. What's more, approximately 209,000 people had their credit card data exposed.
- Adult FriendFinder: In 2016, this adult networking website suffered a data breach across all of its 412.2 million accounts. The stolen data had been collected for over two decades across six separate content website databases. The malicious actors stole email addresses, usernames, and passwords.
Learn more about the biggest data breaches to ever occur.