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How Do Data Compromises Happen? And How to Prevent Them

by Chris Brook on Thursday December 21, 2023

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Understand what a data compromise is, how they happen, what they typically target, and tips for preventing a data compromise from happening in the first place in our new blog.

Ideally, organizations will always be equipped and ready to prevent data compromises from happening. Sadly, this isn’t the case because most don’t deeply understand — both on a technical level and a practical standpoint — how the compromises occur. 


Once you learn a data compromise has occurred through the indicators of a compromise, how you respond is crucial in mitigating its impact. This article highlights how you can understand how data compromises happen and how your organization must move swiftly to curtail the damage. 

What Is a Data Compromise?

A data compromise is when unauthorized individuals access secure or confidential data. This could involve personal information such as social security numbers, banking details, and healthcare records. On the other hand, it could involve sensitive corporate information like trade secrets or proprietary data. 

Data compromises can occur through various means, including hacking, phishing, malicious insiders, or even accidental disclosure. The impact of a data compromise can be severe, potentially resulting in financial losses, reputational damage, and legal consequences.

Why Do Data Compromises Happen?

Data compromises can occur for a variety of reasons. Some are due to carelessness and negligence, but most are because malicious attacks exploit software and system infrastructure vulnerabilities. Here are some of the main factors:

  • Poor Data Management: If data is not properly managed and secured, it can be exposed accidentally or exploited intentionally by unauthorized individuals.
  • Unpatched Software Vulnerabilities: If security systems and software are outdated, poorly configured, or lack the most recent software patch, they could have vulnerabilities that can be exploited for a data breach. 
  • Physical Theft or Loss: Physical devices like laptops, external hard drives, and mobile devices can be lost or stolen, giving unauthorized individuals access to data.
  • Third-Party Vendors: If a business shares its data with a third-party vendor who experiences a data breach, its data can also be compromised.
  • Inadequate Security Measures: If a company's security measures are insufficient, it leaves them open to data breaches. This includes unsecured networks and databases, poor password practices, and a lack of employee security training. 

How Does a Data Compromise Happen?

A data compromise occurs when unauthorized individuals gain access to sensitive data. For this to occur, cybercriminals typically gain access by exploiting zero-day and well-known attack vectors. Here are some common ways a data compromise can happen:

Malware Attacks

Malware comes in various forms, such as viruses, worms, Trojan horses, and ransomware. A malware attack can be launched by embedding a virus in a seemingly harmless download. Once the unsuspecting target opens the file, the virus can infiltrate your system and give the hacker access to your data.

Phishing Attacks

Cybercriminals often use social engineering attacks with phishing emails or text messages to trick recipients into revealing sensitive information. These messages appear to come from reputable sources but instead direct users to fake websites where their information is compromised.

Password Attacks

Poorly configured passwords that are easy to guess or have been leaked in a previous data breach are potent attack vectors. Hackers can also use brute force software to make numerous password attempts on targeted, high-value accounts until they gain access.

IT System Vulnerabilities

Hackers often exploit weaknesses in outdated software, operating systems, or hardware. Regular updates and patch installations can help prevent this type of data compromise.

System Misconfiguration

Accidental exposure of sensitive data on cloud services, databases, or networks can lead to data compromise due to misconfigured privacy settings or security controls.

Third-Party/Vendor Risks

Organizations often share information with third-party service providers or partners. If these third parties lack adequate security measures, they can become a weak point for data compromise.

What Is Targeted in a Data Compromise?

Data compromises typically target the following types of information because of their high intellectual property (IP) value and relative ease of resale on the Dark Web:

  • Personally Identifiable Information (PII): This includes names, social security numbers, passport details, driver's license numbers, addresses, and other personal information that can uniquely identify a person.
  • Financial Information: Financial data includes credit or debit card numbers, bank account details, and income information. Data compromises involving financial information can lead to financial fraud or identity theft.
  • Health Information: Personal health information contains medical records, health insurance details, and other health-related personal details. This data type is valuable because it can be used for insurance fraud, obtaining prescription drugs, or launching targeted spear-phishing attacks.
  • Corporate Information: Corporate data such as trade secrets, business plans, intellectual property, financial forecasts, and internal communications can also be targeted in a data compromise, possibly leading to competitive harm, reputational damage, and financial loss.
  • User Credentials: Login details, such as usernames, passwords, and security questions and answers, are frequently targeted. Stolen login credentials can result in account takeover, further data breaches, or unauthorized actions.
  • Biometric Data: Fingerprints, facial recognition patterns, and DNA information can be targeted in a data breach, often to bypass security measures or commit identity theft.

How to Prevent a Data Compromise From Occurring

As a well-known axiom states, prevention is better than cure. Below are some measures you can take to prevent or mitigate a data compromise on your system:

Strong password protection policies

Enforce strong, unique password policies for all systems, especially those with sensitive information access. Strong password policies require a robust combination of special and alphanumeric characters of significant length and demand changing passwords regularly.

Applying Regular System Updates

Organizations must ensure that all systems have the latest security patches and updates to prevent data breaches and compromise. They must pay particular attention to older systems and software because they are more susceptible to breaches.

Managed User Privileges

Not everyone in a company needs access to all data. System administrators and software architects need to apply the principle of least privileges when it comes to access management. This simply means giving only necessary access rights to employees. 

Security Awareness Training 

Businesses should regularly train employees on cybersecurity best practices. This can help them identify potential threats and prevent breaches from human error or phishing attacks.

Encryption of Sensitive Information

Always encrypt sensitive data whether at rest, in storage, or during transmission. Therefore, if a breach occurs, the data will be undecipherable and unusable to the thief.

Multi-factor Authentication

Multi-factor authentication adds another layer of security, making it harder for unauthorized people to gain access.

Regular Auditing

Regularly audit your security measures with penetration tests and update them as necessary. Also, consider having external security audits for an unbiased view of your security posture.

What Steps Should I Take When Suspicious of a Data Compromise?

If you suspect a data compromise within your organization, you should follow these six steps to remedy and mitigate the situation:

  1. Isolate the System: Disconnect the affected system from your network to prevent continued data loss and possible malware from propagating. However, do not completely turn off the system since this could eliminate valuable evidence.
  2. Preserve Evidence: Take immediate steps to preserve existing evidence related to the compromise, such as logs, files, emails, or system snapshots.
  3. Notify Key Personnel: This can include your IT team, legal team, upper management, and public relations department. Involving the right people early can ensure a coordinated and effective response.
  4. Engage a Forensics Team: Enlist the help of a professional cybersecurity team that specializes in forensic analysis to determine the extent of the breach, how it occurred, and what data was compromised.
  5. Notify Law Enforcement and affected parties: Depending on the severity and nature of the breach, law enforcement agencies should be contacted. This could include local or national agencies or specific cybercrime units. Depending on local laws and regulations, you may need to notify customers, staff, or the general public about the breach.
  6. Review and Improve: After the immediate threat is handled, review what happened and why. Improve your policies, procedures, and systems to reduce the risk of future incidents. 

Learn How Digital Guardian Can Help to Prevent Data Compromises

Remember, each situation is unique and may require tailored actions based on legal requirements, the nature of the data compromised, and specific business operations. Always seek legal advice in dealing with data compromises.

Schedule a demo with us today to learn more about how Digital Guardian can help mitigate the risk around a data compromise.


Tags:  Data Protection Vulnerabilities

Chris Brook

Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Digital Guardian’s Data Insider blog. He is a cybersecurity writer with nearly 15 years of experience reporting and writing about information security, attending infosec conferences like Black Hat and RSA, and interviewing hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian–acquired by Fortra in 2021–he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site that was a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.

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