What Are Data Breaches, and How Do They Occur?

You might have heard about organizations getting hacked; this is a data breach. It can happen to any organization and usually occurs because of a vulnerability in their security systems. Read on to understand what a data breach is.

What is a data breach?

A “data breach” means that someone has accessed information without the authorization to do so. In the IT world, it happens from time to time. Usually, a hacker with malicious intent steals data to sell it. This information might either directly help them, or they might sell it to a third party.

A data breach can happen to any organization, irrespective of its size. It can be intentional or accidental. For example, a company getting hacked is an example of an intentional data breach. However, if an employee unknowingly shares the wrong file with an outsider, it is an accidental data breach.

Usually, to target a deliberate data leak, you have to be an organization handling large amounts of sensitive information, such as credit card numbers, phone numbers, etc. But anyone can be the target of a cyber-attack.

Background of Data Breaches

Data breaches have become common in the past few decades. It is primarily because of increased accessibility and the use of digital technology. However, even before computerization, data breaches existed. But that would be something like viewing a confidential file. As it required the physical presence of the attacker, which was rare.

After 2005, the world started facing some of the most significant data breaches. People began relying heavily on digital technology to store sensitive information. Unfortunately, that created plenty of opportunities for cybercriminals.

In 2005, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse reported 135 data breaches. Since then, over 4500 data breaches have occurred, including 816 million individual records. Additionally, the investigation report for Verizon shows  5212 confirmed data breaches in 2022.

Some of the notable security breaches include:

  1. Sony PlayStation Network in 2010
  2. Evernote in 2013
  3. Target in 2013
  4. eBay in 2014
  5. Yahoo in 2016.

Types of Data breaches

There are different types of data breaches you need to be aware of; you can see a few below:

Stolen Information

The simplest way a data leak can happen is when you lose your credentials or someone steals them. For example, they could see us typing a password or guessing the password.

Stolen Equipment

Another way someone can gain access to our information is by stealing or finding our equipment, like a mobile phone. Some equipment, like password generators or access cards, can give them physical access to our network or premises.

Social Engineering

Criminals also use social engineering tactics, like phishing, to get user credentials. For example, they might send an official-looking email asking for passwords.

Deliberate Leaks

Sometimes people inside an organization share information with the outside world. They may either spread confidential data or the credentials to gain access to it. We can prevent this by using strict access controls.

Security Flaws

Security systems are so complex that flaws like configuration mistakes are commonplace. Cybercriminals may take advantage of these flaws in our organization’s security; this is a vulnerability.

Computer Malware

Organizational networks may be infected by a malicious program designed to steal data. It might come through the Internet or USB storage devices.

Compromised Hardware

Criminals can set up hardware to record sensitive information. For example, they can add a fake keyboard to record our keystrokes, including our passwords.

Intercepting Communication

They can also use the man-in-the-middle attack, where they intercept unencrypted data destined for other locations.

Data Breach Regulations

Many organizations have set standards for industrial security systems and rules to avoid data breaches. The organization standard is PCI DSS if you are a financial institution; it stands for Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard. It has instructions on how and which industries should handle personal details, like credit card numbers, contact information, etc.

For the health industry, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act sets the rules and regulations to prevent data breaches. It regulates how authorities should use personal details and issues penalties for unauthorized access.

No organization regulates the leakage of intellectual property data. But there are serious legal consequences if caught.

Steps to prevent data breaches

We cannot counter data breaches using a single method. Instead, we may use the following ways to prevent data breaches:

  • Give access to sensitive information only to a limited number of trusted people. This will reduce the cyber risk of data breach through inside personnel.
  • Always use SSL/TLS encryption for your network. It would make it harder to know the content details even if criminals intercepted it.
  • A firewall may be able to prevent malware from accessing your network. You can also use secure web gateways and DDoS protection to make your organization’s network more secure.
  • Always keep your software up-to-date as new updates include codes for the latest security breach preventive methods.

Steps to recover from a data breach

The impact of a data breach could be severe. Therefore, we must follow specific standard procedures to recover and prevent future data breaches after identifying a leak.

  1. Once a breach is identified, the first step is to contain it. That means separating the infected systems from the others.
  2. Consider if this cyber attack can cause any more problems. For example, this attack might be a way to install a backdoor. So if you don’t check for that, the attacker can gain access later.
  3. After containing the breach, restore all the systems using a backup. Then it would be best to look for the vulnerabilities that enabled the cyber attack and fix them.
  4. Inform the people affected by the breach. It could include legal departments, employees, customers, partners, credit card companies, and insurance companies.
  5. The final step is to document the lessons, ensuring that the attack will never happen again. The report will include every detail, including the time of the breach, the vulnerability exploited, and measures taken.

Data breach use cases

Colonial Pipeline

In May 2021, Colonial Pipeline got infected with a ransomware attack that disrupted the oil flow in the US. It took several months to bring back the systems. First, the company had to pay the ransom; however, they could not use the software and data.


In March 2021, several hackers exploited zero-day vulnerabilities. That means even Microsoft did not know about these vulnerabilities. As a result, criminals gained access to all the emails. Additionally, they placed backdoors and malware in the system.

Sony Pictures

In 2014, a group of hackers called “Guardians of Peace” breached the Sony Pictures network. As a result, they leaked all the unreleased films. Many experts blame the North Korean government for the attack as the hacker group issued threats related to the movie “Interview.” The movie features the assassination of a fictional version of the North Korean leader.


In 2013, customer names and credit card information were stolen, affecting over 110 million customers. The government and several customers and credit card companies filed lawsuits against them. Target had to pay several million dollars as a settlement.


1. How can you help protect your data from a data breach?

Using strong and unique passwords, you can protect your data from a security breach. It would be best if you never wrote them down. Using two-factor authentication will also increase your account’s security. Additionally, you should only submit personal information on a website if it has an SSL certificate, symbolized by a lock in the address bar. To ensure that your devices are secure, regularly update your software, never install it from untrusted sources, and encrypt your storage.

2. What is the difference between intentional and unintentional data breaches?

Intentional data breaches happen when a criminal willingly exploits a vulnerability in the system and gains information. They could use many means, including phishing, intercepting communications, infecting the devices, etc.

In cases of unintentional data breaches, you accidentally do things that reveal sensitive information to unauthorized personnel—for example, emailing confidential files to the wrong person, losing your digital equipment, etc. Unintentional data breaches are more challenging to manage, as the person responsible never intends to breach. They knew what the mistake was but were careless. and carelessness can always happen.

3. What can attackers do with the stolen data after a breach?

There are many reasons why attackers may steal data:

  • They may want to reveal the content to the public.
  • Criminals might want to sell the information on the black market, like the dark web.
  • Hackers can use the information to sabotage the organization by giving any competitive research data to its competitors.
  • They can use information like credit card numbers and passwords to steal money.

4. What are the targets attackers identify when carrying out a data breach?

When carrying out a security breach, attackers look for devices connected to a network. The more devices, the more places from which they can attack. These are the attack surfaces. For example, an attack surface could be the employees themselves, on whom the hackers can use social engineering tactics to gain information. However, usually, it is something technical. For example, it could be the lack of firewalls, encryption, or methods to prevent DDoS attacks or other things like that.

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