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How to Avoid Data Leakage in Your Organization

Updated: May 16, 2023

Modern businesses routinely collect names and addresses, phone numbers and emails, bank details, and much more in order to serve clients and know them better. Protecting that data is imperative.

Data protection is crucial because:

  • Compromised customer data can be harmful to clients, exposing them to phishing attempts, identity theft, and other crimes.

  • Being involved in a data leak can lead to hefty fines from regulators, especially if the business lacked adequate security measures and/or failed to respond accordingly.

  • Leaked proprietary data can cost a business its competitive advantage, allowing another company to produce the same product or service without investing the same time and money in research and development.

  • The loss of sensitive data can cause a severe risk if the business is in a critical industry, such as healthcare or food and beverages.

  • The loss of customer trust after a data leak may be less quantifiable than the financial costs of data loss, but it can be more devastating, with some organizations never recovering from a data leak.

It’s essential that businesses take steps to reduce the risks of the most common kinds of data loss, which are as follows:

  • Human error

  • System misconfigurations

  • Weak information security policies

  • System vulnerabilities

  • Insider threats

What’s the Difference Between Data Leakage and a Data Breach?

A data breach typically involves a cyber attack. The threat is generally external and involves the manipulation or compromise of staff or IT systems.

A data leak, on the other hand, is typically caused internally. For example, if hospital staff send medical results to the wrong contact address, this would be considered a data leak. Confidential papers left on desks and cloud storage repositories without passwords are also examples of potential data leaks.

While data leaks are often accidental or due to a lack of awareness, they can also be the consequence of negligence or malicious intentions, with insiders releasing data for various motivations, including profit, status, a grudge with the company, or political reasons in the case of whistleblowers, such as Edward Snowden.

Top Tips to Avoid Data Leakage

Since human error is a significant cause of data leakage, it makes sense for most businesses to start remediation efforts there. However, a cyber risk assessment can identify the top risks for a particular organization and help its leaders determine which risks to address first.


Training

In most cases, an organization’s people are its biggest vulnerability when it comes to data breaches and data leaks. Some cybersecurity or information security training can tighten up security gaps quickly.

Cybersecurity training should begin during the onboarding process and last throughout each employee’s time with the company. This way, employees’ skills stay in line with evolving cyber risks and changes in business processes. It’s also useful to provide refresher courses or initiatives to ensure that cybersecurity remains a priority.

Businesses might consider prioritizing teaching staff how to identify and avoid scams so that they are less likely to reveal confidential data to unauthorized parties. For example, phishing attempts are normally delivered by email and have common traits, including:

  • poor spelling and grammar

  • an over-reliance on urgency

  • business names that are near-copies of authentic business names

  • suggestions that the receiver has been individually selected

Training should extol the virtues of checking details before responding to any communications, particularly those that seem suspicious or request confidential information. Using PhoneHistory to verify the sources of unknown phone numbers provides useful information, including the name and contact details of the owner, their social media profiles, the carrier, and the historic use of the number.


Developing a Cybersecurity Culture

Developing a cybersecurity culture is one of the most effective things an organization can do to prevent data leaks and other cyber incidents that could compromise sensitive data. It differs from cybersecurity training in that it’s a top-down approach to engaging with cybersecurity issues that starts at the board level and distills throughout the organization over time through various initiatives, incentives, and simulations.

In a business with a mature cybersecurity culture, colleagues understand that they are all stakeholders in data protection, so they help each other avoid data leaks. Data protection is prioritized in regular meetings, and people are more likely to report suspicious activity that could threaten information security.

Achieving this level of company-wide awareness and engagement is valuable but can take a long time. Many businesses favor the carrot over the stick, offering incentives for positive engagement with cybersecurity issues and using innovative methods and all the prowess of the marketing team to spread cybersecurity awareness messages.


Implementing an Information Security Policy

Staff can’t be expected to keep a business secure if they don’t know why or how data must be protected. Training will largely answer this question, but a documented information security policy makes it official. It gives people something to refer to when they spot suspicious activity.

A written information security policy clarifies what is acceptable, what needs attention, and the roles have responsibilities associated with data protection.


Data Limitation

This might seem churlish, but it’s true that the less sensitive data a business processes and stores, the less risk it faces from data leaks.

The key here is for businesses to:

  • only ask for the data they really need

  • securely destroy that data when it’s no longer required

Access Control

Access control systems often employ software to help manage varying levels of access credentials. It also refers to physical access control, such as security guards, CCTV, and the use of ID cards or badges to limit and monitor access.

By limiting access to confidential information, an organization can limit the risk of a data leak. Access control not only restricts how many people can access a network but also determines how far different people can go through a network according to their duties and needs.

An excellent access control policy will review access privileges regularly. This ensures that people who have left the company or changed roles have their access credentials revoked or modified. In many businesses, colleagues share access credentials for convenience, but this must be disallowed to avoid data leaks and unauthorized access to information.


In the event of a data leak occurring, data forensics specialists will find it easier to identify the cause and assess the likely impact if there is an access control system in place. Even better if this is combined with a firewall — which monitors everything entering or leaving a network — and a continuous monitoring system — which, while sounding somewhat like Big Brother, can help detect unusual network activity and limit the damage of data leaks, whether malicious or accidental.


Conclusion

The risk of data leaks is significant, but, fortunately, it can be managed. The key components of a strategy to prevent data leaks are staff training, clear policies, and using resources and technology to verify that only authorized people can access sensitive information and that they only transmit it to verified, authorized recipients.

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