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How to Prevent Data Breaches (Best Practices)

The number of data breaches has skyrocketed, becoming a common headache for businesses of all sizes. Today, it's not just about if a data breach will happen, but when. The cost of these breaches is also rising, with businesses shelling out an average of USD 4.45 million each time their data is compromised. This is a significant jump of 15% compared to the costs three years ago.

But the impact of a data breach goes way beyond just the money. It can deeply affect a company's reputation, making customers think twice before trusting them again. On top of that, there are legal penalties that can add to the financial strain.

A data breach can shake a business to its core, affecting everything from its bottom line to its relationships with customers. That's why it's important to learn the best ways to prevent data breaches from ever touching your organization. Let's dive in, starting with the definition of a data breach.

Data Breach Definition

A data breach is a security incident in which sensitive, protected, or confidential information is accessed, disclosed, or taken without authorization. This can include a wide range of information types, such as personal health information (PHI), personally identifiable information (PII), trade secrets, intellectual property, and other forms of confidential data. Data breaches can occur through various means, including cyberattacks like hacking or phishing, loss or theft of physical devices containing data, insider threats, or even accidental exposure due to security lapses.

The severity and impact of a data breach can vary significantly depending on the nature of the data involved, the volume of data taken, and the intent of the perpetrators.

Breaches can lead to:

  • Financial losses
  • Damage to an organization's reputation
  • Legal consequences
  • Significant personal harm to the individuals whose data was compromised
ūüďĆ Quick warm-up - Did you know the biggest data breach in history was the Yahoo data breach that exposed 3 billion user accounts?
data breach definition

Key Components of a Data Breach

  • Unauthorized Access: This is the primary characteristic of a data breach. It means that individuals who do not have permission to view or handle certain data gain access to it. This could be through malicious intent, such as hacking, or through negligence, such as leaving a computer unlocked.
  • Sensitive Information: The type of information involved plays a crucial role in defining the severity of a breach. Sensitive information (also PII) can include personal details that could lead to identity theft, financial loss, or personal embarrassment, among other consequences.
  • Compromise of Confidentiality, Integrity, or Availability: A breach often compromises one or more elements of the CIA triad, a model designed to guide policies for information security within an organization. Confidentiality means that information is not disclosed to unauthorized individuals, integrity means that the information is accurate and unaltered, and availability means that information is accessible to authorized users when needed.

Types of Data Breaches

  • Cyberattacks

These are deliberate attacks carried out by cybercriminals using various tactics like malware, ransomware, phishing, or SQL injection to gain unauthorized access to data.

  • Physical Theft or Loss

This occurs when devices containing sensitive data, such as laptops, external hard drives, or paper records, are lost or stolen.

  • Insider Threats

Sometimes, data breaches are caused by individuals within an organization‚ÄĒeither through malicious intent or negligence.

  • Accidental Exposure

In some cases, data breaches occur due to accidental actions, such as sending sensitive information to the wrong recipient or misconfiguring databases that then become accessible on the internet.

How Do Data Breaches Happen?

Data breaches commonly occur due to cyberattacks, physical security breaches, insider threats, inadequate security practices, and human error. These incidents expose sensitive information through various channels, highlighting the need for comprehensive cybersecurity measures that include technical defenses and organizational strategies to mitigate risk.

Cyberattacks

  • Phishing: Cybercriminals use phishing emails to deceive recipients into revealing sensitive information or downloading malware. Phishing is one of the most prevalent methods used to initiate data breaches.
  • Malware and Ransomware: Malicious software, including viruses, worms, and ransomware, can be used to infiltrate and compromise data systems, allowing attackers to access or encrypt data for ransom.
  • SQL Injection: Attackers exploit vulnerabilities in data-driven applications to insert malicious SQL statements into an entry field, gaining unauthorized access to the database.
  • Zero-Day Exploits: These attacks occur the same day a vulnerability is discovered in software before a patch or solution is implemented.
  • Social Engineering:

Physical Security Breaches

  • Theft or Loss of Devices: Data breaches can happen when devices containing sensitive information, such as laptops, smartphones, or external storage devices, are stolen or lost.
  • Improper Disposal: Sensitive data can be exposed when old devices or physical records are disposed of without proper data destruction procedures.

Insider Threats

  • Malicious Insiders: Employees or contractors with access to sensitive information may intentionally misuse their privileges to steal or expose data.
  • Accidental Insider Breaches: Employees may inadvertently cause a data breach through careless actions, such as sending sensitive information to the wrong recipient or falling for phishing scams.

Inadequate Security Practices

  • Weak Authentication: Insufficient authentication measures, such as the lack of multi-factor authentication, make it easier for unauthorized users to gain access to sensitive systems.
  • Lack of Encryption: Failing to encrypt data, especially when stored or transmitted, leaves it vulnerable to interception and unauthorized access.
  • Poor Network Security: Insufficient network defenses can allow attackers to easily penetrate an organization's digital perimeter and access sensitive data.
  • Delayed Software Updates: Failing to promptly apply software updates and patches leaves systems vulnerable to known security exploits.

Human Error

  • Misconfiguration: Incorrectly configuring databases, servers, or software can inadvertently expose sensitive data to the public internet.
  • Data Sharing Oversights: Sharing sensitive information with the wrong party, whether through email, cloud services, or other means, can lead to unintended data exposure.

How To Prevent Data Breach Incidents: 16 Best Practices

Preventing data breaches requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses both technological solutions and human factors. Here are data breach prevention best practices that organizations can implement to mitigate the risk of data breaches:

1. Conduct Regular Risk Assessments

risk assessment to prevent data breaches

Conducting regular risk assessments is a foundational best practice in preventing data breaches. It involves systematically evaluating your organization's information systems and processes to identify vulnerabilities, threats, and the potential impact of data breaches. By understanding where your weaknesses lie, you can prioritize security measures effectively. 

Objectives of Risk Assessments

  • Identify Vulnerabilities: Discover flaws in software, systems, and processes that could be exploited by attackers.
  • Assess Threats: Evaluate potential threats facing your organization, from cybercriminals and insider threats to natural disasters.
  • Determine Impact: Understand the potential consequences of data breaches, including financial loss, reputational damage, and regulatory penalties.

2. Ensure Third-Party Vendor Security

3rd party security for data breach prevention
54% of businesses do not properly check their third-party vendors.

The security posture of your third-party vendors can directly impact your organization's risk of a data breach. Vendors may handle everything from customer data processing to IT infrastructure support, and any vulnerabilities in their systems could serve as entry points for cyberattacks against your organization.

To securely manage third-party vendors, organizations should:

  • Conduct thorough security assessments before partnership agreements.
  • Clearly define security requirements in contracts.
  • Continuously monitor the vendors' compliance with these standards.
  • Implement a vendor risk management program that categorizes vendors based on their access level to sensitive data and systems, and adjusting oversight accordingly, is crucial.
  • Limit access to data and systems strictly to what is necessary for vendors to fulfill their roles, adhering to the principle of least privilege.

Suggested reading: SaaS Vendor Management

3. Implement Strong Password Policies

password security for data breach prevention
Compromised passwords are still a major problem, constituting 19% of all security incidents.

Strong password policies are critical in safeguarding an organization's data from unauthorized access. A password policy ensures that all users create passwords difficult for attackers to guess or crack.

Key Elements of Strong Password Policies

  • Complexity Requirements: Passwords should be complex, including a mix of upper and lower case letters, numbers, and special characters to enhance their strength.
  • Minimum Length: Set a minimum password length, typically at least 8 characters, though more is often recommended to increase security.
  • Regular Updates: Require users to change their passwords regularly, such as every 60 to 90 days, to reduce the risk of using compromised passwords indefinitely.
  • Unique Passwords: Discourage or prevent the reuse of passwords across different accounts and systems to limit the damage if one password is compromised.
  • Password Education: Educate users about the importance of using strong, unique passwords and the risks associated with weak password practices.
  • No Shared Accounts: Shared accounts may lead to a chain reaction of data loss.

Pro tip: Use a SaaS security management tool like Resmo to automatically detect security risks like password vulnerabilities and shared accounts.

4. Use Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA

Using Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA) adds an extra layer of security beyond just a password. It requires users to provide two or more verification factors to access their accounts, making it much harder for hackers to break in.

Also, see the latest MFA statistics.

5. Keep Systems and Software Updated

software update for data breach prevention

Keeping your systems and software updated is a simple yet effective way to protect against many common cyber threats. These updates often include patches for vulnerabilities that hackers could exploit.

Systems and software that are commonly overlooked yet can significantly contribute to data breaches include:

  • Legacy Systems
  • Third-Party Applications
  • Plugins and Extensions
  • Open Source Software
  • Employee Personal Devices (BYOD)
  • IoT Devices
  • Networking Equipment
  • Content Management Systems (CMS)
  • Cloud Storage and Services

6. Monitor Access to Your Cloud Documents

document data breach preventing

Monitoring access to cloud documents is crucial in safeguarding sensitive information and preventing unauthorized access. As more organizations rely on cloud storage and collaboration tools, understanding who accesses what data and when becomes essential for security. 

  • Quickly identify and respond to any unauthorized access attempts.
  • Ensure sensitive information isn't being inappropriately shared or accessed.
  • Meet regulatory requirements by maintaining strict control over data access and handling.

Best practices:

  • Set Access Controls: Define who can view, edit, or share documents. Use the principle of least privilege to minimize access as much as possible.
  • Enable Alerts: Set up alerts for unusual access patterns or access attempts from unauthorized locations.
  • Encrypt Sensitive Documents: Use encryption for documents that contain sensitive or confidential information to add an extra layer of security.
  • Regular Reviews: Periodically review access logs and permissions settings to ensure they align with current needs and security policies.
  • Train Your Team: Educate employees about the importance of data security and the proper use of cloud documents. Make them aware of phishing scams and other tactics that could compromise cloud data.

Resmo's Cloud Document Security tool shows all company documents stored in cloud storage services like Google Drive, OneDrive, and DocuSign, helping you instantly detect unauthorized, public, and unnecessary access to your files. 

7. Educate and Train Employees

employee data breach training

Educating and training employees on cybersecurity best practices is one of the most effective ways to prevent data breaches. Since human error is a leading cause of security incidents, raising awareness and providing ongoing training can significantly reduce this risk. 

Key Components of an Effective Training Program

  • Regular Training Sessions: Conduct cybersecurity training sessions regularly, not just as a one-time event. This ensures employees are up-to-date with the latest security threats and practices.
  • Real-World Examples: Use examples of actual cyberattacks and breaches to highlight the importance of security and employees' role in preventing them.
  • Phishing Simulations: Carry out simulated phishing attacks to teach employees how to recognize and respond to malicious emails.
  • Password Security: Educate employees on creating strong passwords and the importance of using different passwords for different services.
  • Safe Internet Practices: Teach employees about safe browsing practices and the risks associated with downloading and installing unauthorized software.
  • Reporting Procedures: Ensure employees know how to report suspicious activity or potential security threats.

8. Encrypt Sensitive Data

data encryption

Encrypting sensitive data is a critical security measure that protects information from unauthorized access, both at rest and in transit. Encryption converts data into a coded format that can only be decoded with the correct key, ensuring that even if data is intercepted or accessed without permission, it remains unreadable and secure. 

9. Implement Access Controls

access control for data loss prevention

Implementing access controls is crucial for safeguarding sensitive information and systems by ensuring that only authorized individuals can access certain data or resources. Access controls are policies and technologies restricting access to data, systems, and facilities to protect against unauthorized use, disclosure, alteration, and destruction. These controls minimize the risk of unauthorized access, compliance breaches, and theft of critical business information.

10. Monitor and Log Access

user activity log to prevent data breach

Monitoring and logging access to systems and data are critical to a comprehensive security strategy. This practice involves tracking who accesses information, what actions they perform, and when these activities occur. By maintaining detailed access logs and monitoring user activities, organizations can detect and respond to unauthorized access attempts, potential security breaches, and ensure compliance with regulatory requirements. 

But don't forget to:

  • Restrict access to log files to prevent potential attackers from covering their tracks.
  • Maintain logs for a period that aligns with regulatory requirements and best practices, balancing between the need for historical data and storage limitations.
  • Educate your security team on interpreting log data and responding to anomalies.

11. Develop an Incident Response Plan

incident response time

An Incident Response Plan (IRP) is a structured approach for handling security breaches or attacks, ensuring an organization can quickly contain, manage, and recover from incidents with minimal impact. Developing a comprehensive IRP is crucial for any organization to effectively respond to and mitigate the consequences of cyber incidents.

12. Secure Physical Access

security guard

Securing physical access goes beyond simply locking doors; it's about creating a layered defense strategy to protect sensitive information and critical infrastructure from unauthorized access. This involves a combination of physical and procedural safeguards designed to control access to physical locations, such as data centers, offices, and storage areas where sensitive data and systems are housed. A tailored approach to securing physical access addresses specific vulnerabilities unique to an organization's physical layout, location, and operational needs.

13. Ensure Data Backup and Recovery

data backup for data loss prevention

A well-crafted backup and recovery plan ensures that critical data can be restored quickly and efficiently following a data loss event, such as a cyberattack, natural disaster, or human error. Implementing a nuanced and robust backup and recovery strategy involves several key steps, each designed to address the organization's unique challenges and recovery objectives.

14. Destroy Before Disposal

data disposal

Proper destruction of data before disposal is critical in preventing unauthorized access to sensitive information when decommissioning hardware. This practice goes beyond simple deletion, involving thorough measures to ensure that malicious actors cannot recover or reconstruct data. 

  • For highly sensitive data, physical destruction may be the most secure option. This can include shredding, crushing, or incinerating storage devices to make data unrecoverable.
  • For magnetic storage media, degaussing can effectively erase data by demagnetizing the medium, rendering the data unrecoverable.
  • Software-based data wiping involves overwriting the existing data with random data multiple times. This method is suitable for reusing or donating devices, ensuring no trace of the original data remains.

15. Protect Portable Devices

mobil device security

Protecting portable devices is essential in today's mobile-centric world, where laptops, smartphones, tablets, and external drives frequently contain sensitive data and access to corporate networks. Given their mobility, these devices are particularly vulnerable to theft, loss, and unauthorized access. Implementing advanced security measures tailored to the mobility and specific risks associated with these devices ensures their protection and the safeguarding of the data they contain.

16 Prevent Shadow IT

shadow IT

One bonus strategy to avoid data breaches is to prevent Shadow IT in your company. Shadow IT is the unauthorized SaaS applications your employees register with their business emails without the knowledge of your IT or security team.

Resmo helps detect every SaaS app your employees sign up with their business emails and identifies security issues of both unapproved and approved SaaS apps in your company. You can try it for free to find the shadow apps in your workspace.

Data Breach Prevention in Healthcare

The healthcare sector faces unique challenges when it comes to data breach prevention. With the increasing digitization of patient records and the high value of medical information, healthcare organizations are prime targets for cyberattacks. Protecting sensitive health information is not just about compliance with regulations like HIPAA in the United States; it's about safeguarding patient trust and ensuring the continuity of care. Here's a focused approach to data breach prevention in healthcare:

Understand the Value of Healthcare Data

Healthcare data includes personal health information (PHI), personally identifiable information (PII), payment information, and more. This data is highly valuable on the black market, making healthcare organizations attractive targets for cybercriminals.

Conduct Regular Risk Assessments

Regular risk assessments help healthcare organizations identify vulnerabilities within their systems and processes. Assessments should consider not only IT infrastructure but also employee practices and third-party services.

Implement Strong Access Controls

  • Role-Based Access: Ensure that access to sensitive data is strictly controlled and based on the minimum necessary rule. Employees should only have access to the information necessary for their roles.
  • Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA): Use MFA to access patient data and systems to add an extra layer of security beyond usernames and passwords.
  • Secure Patient Data
  • Encryption: Encrypt patient data both at rest and in transit to ensure that it remains secure, even if intercepted.
  • Secure Messaging Platforms: Utilize secure messaging platforms for sharing patient information among healthcare providers to prevent data leaks.

Train Healthcare Staff

Regular training for healthcare staff on recognizing phishing attempts, handling patient data securely, and understanding the consequences of data breaches is crucial. Staff should be aware of the latest cybersecurity threats and best practices.

Monitor and Log Access

Continuously monitor and log access to healthcare systems and patient data. This not only helps detect unauthorized access attempts but also ensures compliance with regulations requiring detailed access logs.

Develop a Comprehensive Incident Response Plan

Healthcare organizations must have a detailed incident response plan that includes specific procedures for responding to data breaches. This plan should be regularly updated and tested through drills.

Ensure Vendor Compliance

Third-party vendors with access to patient data should be rigorously vetted to ensure they comply with healthcare data protection standards. Contracts should include clauses that hold vendors accountable for data breaches.

FAQ: Preventing Data Breaches

What can be done to prevent data breach?

To prevent data breaches, organizations should adopt a multi-layered security approach. This includes conducting regular risk assessments to identify vulnerabilities, implementing strong access controls, using encryption for sensitive data, ensuring up-to-date systems and software, and educating employees about cybersecurity best practices. Additionally, deploying security solutions like firewalls, antivirus software, intrusion detection systems, and developing a comprehensive incident response plan can significantly reduce the risk of data breaches.

What protects your data from breaches?

Key strategies like encryption, access control, regular updates, employee training, and security technologies protect your data from breaches.

  • Encrypting data makes it unreadable to unauthorized users at rest and in transit.
  • Implementing strong user authentication and limiting access based on user roles ensures that only authorized personnel can access sensitive information.
  • Keeping software and systems updated closes security vulnerabilities that cybercriminals could exploit.
  • Educating staff on the importance of cybersecurity and recognizing potential threats like phishing emails helps prevent breaches from occurring due to human error.
  • Utilizing antivirus software, firewalls, and intrusion detection and prevention systems to monitor and protect against malicious activities.

What are the 4 common causes of data breaches?

The four common causes of data breaches are human error, phishing attacks, weak or stolen credentials, malware, and ransomware.

  • Mistakes made by employees, such as sending sensitive information to the wrong recipient or misconfiguring databases.
  • Cybercriminals deceive employees into providing sensitive information or access credentials.
  • Attackers often exploit weak or reused passwords to gain unauthorized access to systems.
  • Malicious software can be used to infiltrate and extract data from organizational systems, either by exploiting vulnerabilities or deceiving users into installing it.

How can data leakage be prevented?

Preventing data leakage involves a strategic combination of technical controls, comprehensive policies, and ongoing employee training. Organizations should start by identifying and classifying their data based on sensitivity to implement appropriate protective measures. Deploying Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tools is crucial for monitoring, detecting, and blocking the unauthorized transmission of sensitive information outside the network. Access to sensitive data should be strictly limited.

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