“You’ve been breached” are not words you ever want to hear. Unfortunately, no matter how carefully a business works to stay secure, the risk of a data breach is always present. According to a McKinsey report, 2021 was one of the worst years on record for enterprise data breaches, and the trend is predicted to continue.
Now, it is more important than ever to prepare your organization for worst-case scenarios while instilling the proper data security practices, employee training, and response procedures. These steps will help your organization better understand its risk levels and minimize the chances of a breach occurring.
In this blog, we’ll define what a data breach is, how your organization may be at risk, and the steps you can take to help prevent data breaches now and in the future.
What is a data breach?
A data breach occurs when an unauthorized individual accidentally or intentionally accesses data or leaves it exposed to an unsecured environment. Generally, data breaches are a result of human error or negligence rather than malicious intent. Whether data is lost, corrupted, destroyed, or copied, any unauthorized access that results in a security vulnerability is considered a breach.
The term “data breach” covers a range of compromising actions, which can include data hacks. There are differences between breaches and hacks that are important to understand.
Data breach vs. data hack
A data breach is generally considered unintentional and the result of a negligent employee. A data hack is an intentional and malicious attempt to access unauthorized data within a secure system.
For example, the credit reporting company, Equifax, suffered a massive data hack in 2017 that exposed personally identifiable information (PII) of over 140 million customers. This data hack resulted in a data breach, which ultimately caused serious reputation damage for the company.
Not all hacking attacks will result in a data breach, such as what took place in the Infinite Campus hack, which did not compromise any data. Similarly, not all data breaches occur because of a data hack.
In 2016, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) experienced a data breach when an employee accidentally downloaded 10,000 sensitive records along with their own personal information onto a flash drive. While unintentional, the breach did cause widespread criticism of the organization and required the FDIC Chief Information Officer to testify before a House Science Committee panel.
How data breaches harm your organization
Data breaches can have a significant impact on your organization, from reputation loss to financial penalties. As such, data security practices should not be taken lightly. Without the proper safeguards in place, your organization may experience the following impacts after a data breach:
- Disrupted productivity: A data breach can halt business operations until data is recovered and systems are functioning properly again. Without access to data, departments may be unable to complete their day-to-day tasks.
- Legal liability: Organizations that experience a data breach may have legal responsibilities if the incident violated privacy laws or compliance regulations. This can result in legal penalties, such as fines or sanctions from the state.
- Reputation damage: A data breach that involves sensitive information can also result in a loss of trust in your organization and security standards. Customers and partners may see your organization as a liability and take their business elsewhere.
- Financial loss: An organization can experience financial loss as a result of a data breach. This can include a loss of business as customers leave, the business enduring fines, or leaders having to manage legal fees.
- Business discontinuity: In extreme situations, a data breach can be serious enough to cause long-term damage to your organization. Companies without security protocols, response plans, or business continuity plans may not be able to recover after a breach.
5 common data breach risks and how to avoid them
Organizations in all industries are at risk of data breaches, even those with strict security and compliance requirements, such as healthcare, finance, government, and higher education. In fact, these highly regulated industries are often at greater risk because of the types of sensitive data they collect and manage.
Whether your organization is in one of these sectors or not, you should still be alert to cyberattacks and know how to respond. Here are the five most common ways your organization is at risk.
1. Human error
A research report from Stanford University recently revealed eye-opening statistics: human error accounts for 88% of all data breaches. Whether or not this surprises you, the consequences of a careless mistake span further than the employee at fault. Data breaches, even those not a result of a hacking attack, can seriously harm an organization’s reputation as well as leave sensitive customer data vulnerable.
You can help prevent breaches that are the result of human error in several ways. First, limit access to data unless an employee needs this information to complete their job duties. This minimizes the chances that an employee will use or misuse unauthorized data. Second, implement training programs that teach employees the proper way to access and use data. While this won’t guarantee no mistakes will be made, it will help reduce the likelihood.
2. Poor security practices
Poor security practices that lack or do not enforce policies and procedures put an organization at risk for data breaches. If employees handle sensitive data, an organization needs a standard set of security protocols to keep this information safe. These protocols must actively protect your organization’s data throughout its entire lifecycle.
At the most basic level, your data security protocols should include strong password management. Providing this initial safeguard helps reduce hacking attacks through an employee’s account. Creating and implementing cybersecurity policies, as well as incident response plans, also helps ensure the data your organization collects and manages remains secure.
3. Outdated software
Security and compliance standards are continuously evolving, but that doesn’t mean your outdated software is. Maintaining legacy software does more than disrupt employee productivity. It also creates dangerous vulnerabilities that can result in a data breach. Updating or replacing old software can be expensive upfront, but this move provides greater long-term security for sensitive information.
To minimize security threats to software, be sure your cybersecurity or IT team is regularly patching and updating legacy systems. If you discover a legacy system cannot be updated, it is important to replace it with a more secure alternative.
For example, FormAssembly’s data collection platform adheres to advanced security and compliance standards, including HIPAA, GDPR, GLBA, and FERPA. We also follow the NIST Cybersecurity Framework and continuously ensure our platform and security policies are up to date and keeping everyone’s data safe. You can check out our policies and features here.
4. Vendor non-compliance
Even if your organization does business with one third-party vendor, this puts you at risk for a data breach. External vendors that haven’t been properly vetted can open the doors for data vulnerabilities that will affect your organization. Though it takes extra steps to find vendors that follow your security and compliance requirements, it is necessary.
Make sure you know how your external vendors are handling your organization’s data and who has access to the data. Demanding this transparency ensures that you are protecting sensitive data no matter where or how it is being used. The greater your control and visibility over data, the less likely it will end up in the wrong hands.
5. Lack of employee training
While employees can sometimes make errors, doing so because they lack the proper training is an avoidable problem. These errors may occur with data directly or be due to phishing or social engineering attacks. Even if intentions are pure, clicking a link in an unsuspecting email can open the doors for an entire organization to be hacked.
Often, employees aren’t even aware of the dangers of phishing (email) or smishing (text message), especially if they appear to be coming from a manager or executive. A recent study from internet security awareness training company, KnowBe4, revealed that employee training helps reduce phishing liability by 75%. Continuous cybersecurity training and testing is the best way to keep data security at top of mind for your employees.
Pro Tip: FormAssembly’s web form and data collection platform makes it easy to create cybersecurity training programs for your employees.
Training is especially important if you have a hybrid or fully remote work policy, where employees are more likely to be exposed to security threats. Be sure your employees understand the vulnerabilities of weak passwords, public Wi-Fi connections, using work divides for personal use, or sharing devices with family and friends.
Help prevent data breaches at your organization
Data breaches can be scary and are clearly a cause for concern. However, with the right preparation, training, and resources, your organization can help minimize the risks and keep data secure.
The best way to help prevent data breaches is to stay proactive. Have all data privacy, incident response, and continuity management policies and procedures updated. Make it easy for employees to access these procedures and stay aware through regular training. Most importantly, ensure that your organization understands the importance of maintaining data stewardship.
Download our Data Stewardship whitepaper, written by FormAssembly CEO, Cedric Savarese, for actionable steps your organization can take today to achieve data integrity and security.