What is a Data Breach And How to Deal With it?

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Key Takeaways

  • A data breach is the unauthorized access and use of protected, confidential data.
  • Protected data includes personal identifiable data, medical records, financial information, and corporate and state secrets.
  • Organizations have a legal and moral obligation to protect consumer data from data breaches.
  • Data breaches can be caused by human error or conducted by malicious third parties.
  • Phishing scams, malware injection, credential theft, software vulnerability exploitation, etc., can be used in data breaches.
  • Organizations can leverage multi-factor authentication, data encryption, and cyber literacy training to protect access to the data.
  • Learning how data breaches happen and staying two steps ahead is vital to staying safe in the digital age.

In the digital era, our existence is becoming increasingly dependent on data. Whether it be our personal identification or financial information, it is all stored and managed digitally. All of this would be great if not for the fact that even in the digital world, we have to watch out for bad actors. In 2024, data breaches are some of the most harmful and widespread crimes that can be committed.

This blog will explain data breaches and how they can be prevented, to ease the aching pains left by them. We will also discuss today’s various methods to commit these digital crimes and how businesses and individuals can defend themselves. We can keep ourselves and others safe and make the online world a better place through education and awareness.

Table of Contents

  1. Key Takeaways
  2. What is a Data Breach?
  3. The Causes of a Data Breach
    1. Unintentional Insider Leaks
    2. User Error
    3. Ill-intentioned Insider Leaks
    4. Device Data Breach
    5. Cybercrime Attacks
  4. How Cyber Criminals Breach Data
    1. Phishing Attacks
    2. Brute Force Credential Theft
    3. Malicious Software (Malware) Injection
    4. Software Vulnerability Exploitation
  5. Types of Data Targeted in a Data Breach
    1. Personally Identifiable Information (PII)
    2. Financial Data
    3. Personal Health Information (PHI) and Medical Records
    4. Commercially Sensitive Information
    5. State Secrets
  6. How to Prevent a Data Breach
    1. Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)
    2. Data Encryption
    3. Encouraging Cyber Literacy and Awareness
    4. Keeping Technology Updated
  7. Conclusion
  8. FAQs

What is a Data Breach?

What is a Data Breach?

Image Credit: Freepik

As the name suggests, a data breach is an incident in which data is compromised by unauthorized entities. It is a cybersecurity incident in which stored data is accidentally or maliciously leaked or stolen from an individual or business’ system.

Knowing that your sensitive data may be in the hands of some ill-intentioned actors should be enough to catch your attention. Data breaches are genuine threats to our digital existence, and in many cases, there is no real recourse once the data is breached. The only choice is to do your best to limit how much of your data is out there and invest in data privacy and data security.

The stakes are even higher on the business side as they may be penalized legally for allowing a data breach. Rather than wait for a data breach to happen and react, you must shore up your defenses. Let’s go over how you can break down data breaches and how they occur. Once you know how they happen, working on a countermeasure becomes much easier.

The Causes of a Data Breach

The Causes of a Data Breach

Image Credit: Freepik

There are numerous reasons why a data breach might happen. While it may seem like all of them are the fault of malicious third parties, that is not always the case. Let’s go over the leading causes of data breaches and see what we can dig up:

Unintentional Insider Leaks

There have been many instances where data has been breached unintentionally within an organization. Something as simple as a wrong file emailed to a coworker could be a data breach, especially in the medical industry. Perhaps a coworker looks at your screen and reads something they were not supposed to.

While no information has left the organization in this case, it has still been seen by unauthorized eyes. That alone qualifies as a data breach, and concerned individuals should be informed immediately.

User Error

Data breaches may happen simply because of poor cyberliteracy and users’ digital habits. Banks are a crucial example, with many explicitly warning customers not to give away information. Users may also click on suspicious links and have their data compromised.

There is not much an organization can do to prevent data breaches from user error. In these cases, they hold the user responsible for the breach and claim no liability. Users need to be more aware of what they are doing online. Blindly clicking on every link is a recipe for disaster. Visiting shady websites and engaging in illegal activities like piracy is also a red flag to avoid.

Ill-intentioned Insider Leaks

Insider leaks may not always be unintentional. There is also a chance that an insider may wish to harm the organization or an individual and deliberately breach data. Even if such a person has data access, they are still abusing that trust to cause harm.

Such breaches are very severe, as they indicate a threat to the organization itself and cause internal strife on top. One malicious insider can rot an organization with the paranoia they can create. Organizational trust can break down very quickly when such a data breach occurs.

Device Data Breach

Another common way data is breached is when devices go missing. A work laptop, phone, or even a hard drive counts as such a breach. Whether the data was unencrypted or not, the fact that the device isn’t accounted for means it’s breached.

In these cases, the device is remotely deactivated and wiped if possible, and users are informed about the breach. Passwords and other data must be changed after such an event, as hackers can take their time breaking into the device. It is just a matter of how long it takes for the breach to happen after the device goes missing. The device may be lost or broken, but the worst must be assumed and appropriate measures taken.

Cybercrime Attacks

Data breaches occur primarily because a malicious third party caused them. Hackers and cyber criminals sell data as a product, and organizational databases are their warehouses. They try to brute-force through the lock or get someone with the key to open it and make off with the goods.

Cybercriminals cause the majority of database breaches. These are people who want to harm organizations and individuals for their own gain. After such actors breach data, there is no real defense; all you can do is hope your security can keep them out.

Also Read Database Defense Blueprint: Ensuring Data Security in a Connected World

How Cyber Criminals Breach Data

How Cyber Criminals Breach Data

While data may end up being breached in several ways, the vast majority of cases are cybercrime incidents. A relatively tiny percentage comprises accidental leaks or missing devices.

Phishing Attacks

Phishing is one of the most prevalent tactics cyber criminals use to conduct data breaches. In a phishing attack, the goal is to use social engineering tactics to gain access to secure systems. Social engineering attacks are specially designed fraudulent interactions that prompt you to provide access yourself or do something that allows them access to your database.

Phishing tactics typically involve impersonation, where a hacker pretends to be an associate and requests access from you. They also try to create situations that isolate targets and force them to grant access. A common scam is to call and tell someone their loved ones are in trouble, and they can be saved if a link is clicked. Sometimes, fraudsters even pretend to be state actors and demand access.

Brute Force Credential Theft

Another prevalent data breach tactic is brute force through security. Hackers employ automated mechanisms to try as many password combinations as possible in hopes of guessing the correct one. Strong passwords are critical because they are much harder to guess, and hackers typically do not bother with them. The target is usually weak passwords that can be guessed quickly by software.

A key component of brute force attacks is the danger that follows the initial breach. Once a password has been cracked, hackers try using it on as many popular websites as possible in case it has been reused. This is called credential stuffing and can also lead to multiple organizational devices being compromised if they all use the same password.

Also Read: Web Application Security 101: What It Is, How It Works, Best Practices, & More

Malicious Software (Malware) Injection

Malware is software that contains hidden malicious code. When malware enters a device, hackers can execute the malicious code and take control of the system, causing a data breach. They can gain access to all unsecured files and track the user’s activities. Keyloggers are a common type of malware that allows hackers to record a user’s keystrokes. This lets them piece together passwords and breach data.

Malware can also intercept the machine’s outgoing web requests, and divert them to the hackers server. This can include password information and other personal data. Any personal information or scanned documents in the device are at the mercy of the malware injector.

What is important to note about malware is that it is often running in the background without users noticing. Malware typically ends up in a system when someone downloads files from an untrusted source. Even legitimate software may be compromised by malicious insiders who insert harmful code to breach unsuspecting users.

Software Vulnerability Exploitation

Data breaches may also happen via the exploitation of software vulnerabilities. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as flawless code. Every program has some manner of issues in the code. While typically, these flaws are not serious, they may prove to be an opening for hackers to exploit.

Hackers can examine software’s code and see that some important security features may be missing. Perhaps the software’s online communications are misconfigured, allowing them to be intercepted. All manner of things can go wrong in complex software code, and hackers exploit the tiniest openings to induce data breaches.

Businesses using proprietary software must invest in consistent maintenance to guarantee security. Software manufacturers are consistently releasing updates, many of which address security issues. Installing updates as they roll out is incredibly important, as they may address vulnerabilities.

How Cyber Criminals Breach Data

Also Read: What Is Cloud Data Security? Definition, Types & Benefits

Types of Data Targeted in a Data Breach

Types of Data Targeted in a Data Breach

Understanding what data is valuable and targeted by cyber criminals will give you an idea of what you need to prioritize protecting. It may be prudent for individuals to keep certain information away from their devices altogether. Here are the main types of data targeting in a data breach:

Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

Personal information that can identify an individual is the primary target in data breaches. This data is valuable for several reasons. It can be used for identity theft and impersonation and sold to nefarious parties. People can open accounts using your information and use them for illegal activities, for example.

Financial Data

Financial data is next in line for the most targeted information in a data breach. Credit card numbers, digital tax forms, purchase invoices, and financial reports are included in this category. Financial data not only makes your bank account vulnerable but can also be used to identify you as a wealthy target. This can lead to further digital attacks or even physical altercations.

Personal Health Information (PHI) and Medical Records

Under the US HIPPA standard, PHI is any information in the medical record that was created, used, or disclosed in the course of providing a health care service, such as diagnosis or treatment. PHI is valuable because it can be used to make false drug purchases, falsify medical records, and make false medical claims.

Commercially Sensitive Information

Data collected and used by businesses for regular operation. It includes business secrets, partnerships, patented technology, blueprints, customer data, contractual data, and other sensitive corporate data. This data can be sold to competitors or taken hostage in exchange for ransom.

State Secrets

The government and government-adjacent organizations, like contractors, are major targets in data breaches. Information surrounding military or political matters is worth a lot of money. It includes everything from confidential, classified documents to meeting recordings and military project plans. Edward Snowden’s 2013 NSA leak is a key example.

How to Prevent a Data Breach

How to Prevent a Data Breach

While there is no foolproof defense against a data breach, you can still take measures to reduce risk. The more secure you appear to cyber criminals, the less likely they will target you. This goes for both individuals and organizations. You have to show some teeth to keep the predators at bay.

Multi-Factor Authentication (MFA)

Multi-factor authentication (MFA) is a standard security feature in almost every web service that requires an account. It is a verification system used to authenticate user login. When you log in to an account with MFA enabled, it will send a code or prompt you via a set method, like email. By entering this code, you can confirm to the system that it is indeed you who is trying to log in.

MFA is counted among the data breach best practices for enterprises and individuals alike. It is an excellent first line of defense against brute-force attacks. Even if hackers crack your password, MFA will prevent them from moving forward.

Additionally, if you receive an unprompted MFA message, you will know something suspicious is happening. You can then safely change passwords and report the attempt as suspicious.

Data Encryption

Organizations need to enforce strict data encryption on all data transfers. Data encryption is the process of converting plaintext credentials into coded gibberish during data transfer. The coded data is then unencrypted once it reaches its destination and can be interacted with directly. If the data was encrypted, malicious actors could not intercept it mid-transfer and steal credentials.

Databases can also be encrypted at rest, i.e., stored in encrypted form on the server. This adds an additional layer of security, thwarting hackers even if they manage to break into the server.

Encouraging Cyber Literacy and Awareness

The digital age is still relatively new, and many people are unaware of how much danger there is online. Cyber literacy is about educating people on how to interact with and navigate the digital world safely. It helps build good security habits and keeps people on their toes online.

This blog is our part in spreading more awareness and helping people help themselves. Knowing what can cause data breaches is the first step in the long cybersecurity journey.

Also Read: Top 15 Critical Cyber Security Challenges and How to Fix Them

Keeping Technology Updated

Technology is not static. Once software is developed and released, it does not mean its development is over. Software is constantly evolving and improving. The companies writing the code are hard at work testing and fixing vulnerabilities. Updating software is crucial, as the latest security solutions and features can save you from a data breach. Regular software updates are crucial data breach best practices for employees.

Hackers target businesses using old versions of software. These versions often have exploitable vulnerabilities that should have been removed with an update. By taking advantage of postponed updates, they can steal your whole database from right under your nose. Everyone in the organization must have updated devices. If even one device is behind, it can become a door for all types of data breaches.

Hardware is also an important aspect to discuss here. While hardware does not require frequent updates, upgrading components when manufacturer support stops is essential. Using unsupported hardware can also leave you open to attack.


With that, our detailed discussion on data breaches draws to a close. While there are no guarantees with cybersecurity, this discussion should help tilt the odds in your favor. Knowing the enemy is the key to mastering cybersecurity and mitigating data breach risk. Once you know where an attack could come from, it’s simple to patch the hole and stay safe.

RedSwitches Bare Metal Servers are our contribution to your cybersecurity efforts. Poor-quality servers are ripe for hackers to exploit, and not much can be done if there is a data breach. Investing in RedSwitches’ affordable server hosting can save you and your business from becoming the next Yahoo. RedSwitches servers offer robust security features and options for instant deployment and operation.

By choosing RedSwitches, you can build your cybersecurity plan on a rock-solid foundation and sleep soundly, knowing your data is in good hands. With a solid combination of suitable hardware, software, and data breach best practices for enterprises and employees, no hacker will dare to breach your data.


Q. What is a data breach?

A data breach is a security incident that involves the unauthorized access and spread of sensitive, protected, and confidential data. A data breach exposes individuals and enterprises to untold harm from external threats.

Q. What types of data are typically involved in a data breach?

Data breaches compromise various types of data records. Personal identifiable information (PII), Financial records, medical records, confidential corporate material, and state secrets are notable targets in the majority of private data breaches.

Q. How do data breaches occur?

Data breaches are typically conducted by malicious third parties through various tactics or are accidental data breaches. Enterprise-level data breaches are often well-researched and coordinated efforts by cyber criminals to exploit system vulnerabilities or those using the system.

Q. What are common types of cyber attacks that lead to data breaches?

Network attacks and social attacks are the two main types of cyber attacks involved in a data breach. Network attacks include malware injection, ransomware injection, brute-force hacking, etc. Social attacks involve phishing scams and impersonation.

Q. What role does human error play in data breaches?

A small but still relevant portion of data breaches occur due to human error. A server could be incorrectly configured, leaving the system vulnerable, or data could be accidentally shared with the wrong person. Such incidents are accidental and often not malicious.

Q. What are the consequences of a data breach?

Data breaches can have devastating consequences for individuals and organizations, ranging from severe financial losses to legal trouble and permanent reputation damage.

Q. Who is responsible for preventing data breaches?

In the event of a data breach, both organizations holding the data and individuals handling the data are responsible for data breach prevention.

Q. Tips for defending against data breaches?

Organizations can implement robust security protocols, such as MFA and data encryption at rest, use a password manager, conduct regular cyber literacy training, keep systems updated, and remain vigilant for new threats.

Q. How should an organization respond to a data breach?

Organizations must take responsibility and notify the data breach victims immediately. The source and scope of the breach must be identified and secured immediately, followed up with a damage report. Steps must be taken to prevent another such incident.

Q. What future trends are likely in preventing and managing data breaches?

With cyber criminals using AI, future trends point towards AI-driven security features designed to fight back. Data security is also becoming a more significant issue worldwide, and strict privacy regulations are sure to come.

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