What is a Data Breach? Ultimate Guide to Cyber Security Breaches in 2020

As organizations invest more heavily in their digital infrastructure, the consequences of data breaches and cybersecurity attacks have increased in turn. Indeed, research from the Ponemon Institute indicates that the average cost of a data breach in 2018 rose by 6.4% compared with the previous year to a total of $3.86 million. Related to that, the average cost of each stolen file also increased to $148.


Given the rising stakes and increasing costs of data breaches, organizations across a range of industries need to ensure that they understand what they’re up against. This is particularly salient given that cybercriminals—whether outside of organizations or within them—are exploiting the same vulnerabilities that are the result of the same mistakes made from one industry to the next. In fact, Verizon’s 2018 Data Breach Investigations Report found that 94% of security incidents and 90% of data breaches have fallen into the same nine categories since 2014.

For IT teams and CISOs, this means that it’s time to learn how to prevent a data breach and invest in tools that can close the cybersecurity gaps that make such incidents possible. While this will mean different things for different organizations and enterprises, what’s important is identifying what risks you currently face, situating those risks in the context of cybersecurity breaches across your industry and others, and implementing solutions that can help protect your data and digital infrastructure.

To do so, it’s important to ask clear questions that can help you mount a proper defense. For example, what are the types of data breaches? What are the reasons for data breaches? What products on the market can help your team avoid data breaches? By beginning to answer these questions and by working to evaluate industry responses, you can move your organization closer to a data security strategy that fits your needs.

What is a Data Security Breach?

The exact nature of data security breaches will vary depending on industry, organization size, and network architecture. However, at the most basic level, the data breach definition is the unauthorized access of otherwise private digital information. What cybercriminals do with that data varies depending on their intent, but what’s key is the illicit nature of their access to information that doesn’t belong to them. It’s also worth noting that data security breaches can include the exfiltration of information that bad actors have access to but shouldn’t or data that they have access to without explicit approval to disseminate.

If you’re asking what is a data breach, it’s worth noting that they follow a set pattern, although there are different types of data breaches that we’ll discuss further. By evaluating the steps that bad actors take on their way to pulling off a successful data security breach, cybersecurity teams can better analyze their own vulnerabilities and prepare defenses that will make it too difficult for the majority of cybercriminals to successfully penetrate.

  • Probe: Malicious parties begin by attempting to learn more about your network and broader digital environment. They may probe your cybersecurity defenses, test passwords, evaluate how to launch an eventual phishing attack, or look for out-of-date software without the latest security patches.
  • Initial Attack: Once they have a handle on how best to carry out their attack, they’ll launch a first wave, perhaps by sending an email that attempts to trick employees into clicking on a link that will take them to a malicious website, or by corrupting an application essential to employee workflows.
  • Expanded Attack: Once a vulnerability has been exploited in this way, cybercriminals will evaluate their next steps. Typically, this will involve them leveraging whatever toehold they have to attack the rest of the network and locate as much valuable information as possible.
  • Data Lift: Because different types of cybersecurity breaches occur on different timescales, bad actors may attempt to exfiltrate as much data as quickly as possible or lay dormant until they understand just how much they can get away with.

The exact kind of information stolen from an external cybercriminal or an internal bad actor will vary from one organization to the next. However, Verizon’s study did find that 76% of breaches were financially motivated. This may involve trade secrets, proprietary information, and sensitive government records, or it may center on the theft of customers’ personal data—as it has with publicized breaches with Facebook, Yahoo, and Uber—that cybercriminals could then use for their own gain. And it’s crucial to know how to prevent security breaches in healthcare for entities governed by HIPAA, as patients could have their health data at risk.

What are the Main Types of Data Security Breaches?

As explained above, there are a lot of caveats when it comes to discussing how to avoid data breaches. The exact nature of any assault will depend on an organization’s specific vulnerabilities as well as what a given cybercriminal intends to do with the information they steal. With that said, there are several main types of data security breaches. These include basic human error, cyberattacks ranging from phishing and malware to ransomware and password attacks, and assaults deliberately carried out by insiders.

  • Human Error: Data security breaches caused by human error are, as the category implies, accidental. For example, IT teams may inadvertently expose customer information by misconfiguring servers, or employees may fall prey to social engineering attacks. These types of attacks attempt to trick an organization’s team members into clicking on malicious links or downloading seemingly safe files. According to CompTIA, more than half of the data breaches are the result of human error, making this category one of the most important to resolve.
  • Device Loss: Additionally, the loss of devices due to personal forgetfulness or outright theft can pose a major security risk. Individuals may be careless and leave smartphones, laptops, tablets, or thumb drives behind—devices that store proprietary information or that provide unfettered access to your network. They may also not pay proper attention to those devices and give bad actors a chance to steal them when they’re not being looked after. In either situation, criminals may be able to bypass a given device’s security protocols and gain access to sensitive information.
  • Cyber Attack: The next category, cyberattack, is understandably at the forefront of the data security conversation. Indeed, with the cost of cybercrime surpassing $600 billion around the world, organizations are concerned about the threats posed by bad actors attempting to game their defenses. To do so, cybercriminals may deploy malware to infect systems, phishing to gain access through network users, or ransomware to extort companies after stealing valuable information. While the underlying vulnerabilities exploited during these attacks differ—malware may depend on applications that haven’t been updated properly, while phishing relies on human error—the concerted, nefarious intent of the attacks remain the same.
  • Internal Breaches: Finally, internal data security breaches that are not accidental are a real threat. Disgruntled employees, employees who suspect they’re about to be terminated, or dismissed employees whose credentials have, inadvertently, yet to be revoked, may exfiltrate information that they have access to without permission to disseminate. While there can be any number of reasons they may decide to attempt an attack like this, from extortion to black market trading, organizations should keep in mind that breaches coming from the inside often aren’t caused by human error alone.

How Can I Prevent a Data Security Breach?

For IT teams, defending organizations from such a diverse array of threats are daunting. To that end, you need to know to prevent a data breach and what steps are essential building blocks of any larger cybersecurity defense. Traditionally, the data security breach lifecycle includes five key stages: discover, detect, prioritize, remediate, and manage. These stages aren’t one-and-done steps, however. Rather, they should be ongoing components of an around-the-clock data breach prevention operation.

  • Discovery: During the discovery phase, security professionals should work through sensitive information in order to identify any unprotected data at rest. This kind of information is an easy target for bad actors both within and without your organization, so it’s vital that you take steps to secure it. You can start this process by reviewing what insiders have access to that data and changing authorizations to ensure that only those who need to work with that data actually can.
  • Detection: Next comes detection. At this stage, IT professionals should be monitoring for security threats that can provide cybercriminals with easy entry points into your network. Without this kind of vigilance, it can be surprisingly easy for bad actors to access and exfiltrate your data. For instance, if major applications haven’t been updated with the latest security patches, bad actors can easily exploit those vulnerabilities to access your network. Regularly reviewing pending updates is, in this way, essential.
  • Prioritization: During the prioritization phase, it’s important to triage at-risk assets in order to secure the most glaring cybersecurity openings. By leveraging the combined intelligence of security information and data operations to pinpoint where bad actors might attack your network, your team can close gaps and better protect your organization. To accomplish this, security professionals will need to conduct audits to understand what needs to be prioritized.
  • Remediation: With remediation, you’ll work to resolve the threats to data security that you’ve identified and prioritized during the previous steps. As explained earlier, this could involve updating applications with the latest security patches. However, it could also require you to encrypt sensitive information to control access to it, remove it from your network entirely, or revise authorizations across your organization.

Finally, IT professionals need to manage this process strategically and effectively. Taking control of the data breach prevention lifecycle and making it work for your organization will require scalable solutions that can leverage useful data from across your network and turn it into actionable insights. As stated above, this process is an ongoing one, rather than a project with a finite endpoint. To that end, it’s worth investing in tools that will make it easier for cybersecurity teams to monitor your digital infrastructure and resolve potential threats.

What are the Best Tools for Preventing a Data Breach?

Preventing a data breach is an essential task for IT teams and cybersecurity professionals, albeit a challenging one. Given the rise of advanced cybercrime around the world and the proliferation of new technologies and digital behaviors such as IoT and BYOD, respectively, securing sensitive information across sprawling companies calls for sophisticated solutions that bring next-generation capabilities to bear on your organizational cybersecurity strategy.


The following are some common types of software that can help protect your business from data breaches:

  • Access control: It’s important to have a tool that manages access rights and helps delegate proper permissions to employees. Access control software provides basic and essential security for businesses, as it lets IT monitor who has access to given information and amend permissions as needed. A configurable, role-based template can help ensure IT teams are able to automatically assign what your company deems is the proper amount of permission levels based on job role. In some cases, this kind of software can help you audit trails and generate compliance reports.
  • SIEM: Security information and event management (SIEM) software combines security information management (SIM) and security event management (SEM) for a more comprehensive solution. The primary focus of a SIEM tool is log management, which entails collecting and storing log messages, as well as analyzing and reporting on log data. The software also oversees security alerts in real time, and in some cases can resolve typical threats automatically. Ideally, IT can use the SIEM tool to view and take action on current threats and look over historical data of past threats.
  • Antivirus: Antivirus software can help protect against a range of outside threats, as well as assist you in identifying and removing threats that have already infiltrated your defenses. Ideally antivirus tools can help protect you from issues like Trojans, worms, adware, spyware, ransomware, and all manner of malicious activity. A robust antivirus tool should address a range of these threats, and provide full visibility into any cyberattacks that occur.

No matter what kind of IT security management tools you implement, be sure their features are robust. Platforms should come with automatic updates and patching to ensure reliability. Be sure that the software takes data encryption into account, if relevant. In addition, look for a tool that checks potential threats against an updated database of known global threats. New cyber attacks designed to avoid traditional detection methods can spread incredibly quickly, and your security solution should continually ‘evolve’ to stay one step ahead.

Overall, if you’re looking to protect your organization against a range of data breaches, it’s crucial to assess the potential threats, understand how an attack might occur, and choose powerful, business-grade tools that will fully protect networks, servers, and sensitive data.