What Is a Data Breach?

5 min. read

A data breach occurs when unauthorized individuals gain access to sensitive information, such as personal data, financial records, or intellectual property, within an organization's network or cloud infrastructure. Data breaches can result from various attack vectors, including malicious actors exploiting vulnerabilities, social engineering tactics, insider threats, and inadequate security measures. The consequences of a data breach can be severe, involving direct financial loss, as well as costs associated with reputational damage, legal repercussions, and operational disruptions.

Data Breaches Explained

A data breach is a security incident, but not not all security incidents become data breaches. Events and activities that could compromise the confidentiality, integrity, or availability of an organization's information systems or data fall under the heading of security incident. Such incidents might include vulnerability detection, anomalous user activity, malware infection, denial of service (DoS) attack, policy violation, and unauthorized access. But a security incident isn't a data breach until data is accessed.

A data breach presents a more severe event, often targeted, where confidential information is accessed, stolen, or exposed. The unauthorized party gains access to an organization's sensitive data, which might include personally identifiable information (PII), financial details, user accounts, or trade secrets.

To counter the risk of data breaches, organizations need to implement a comprehensive security strategy that encompasses data loss prevention (DLP), encryption, access control measures, and periodic security assessments. Employing monitoring tools and establishing incident response protocols are also vital for promptly detecting and addressing potential breaches. By taking a proactive stance on data security, organizations can safeguard their valuable assets and uphold the confidence of customers, partners, and stakeholders.

Why Preventing Data Breaches Matter

While the top motive is financial gain, attackers may have other agendas — reputational damage, cyber warfare, corporate espionage, hacktivism. Bad actors often employ sophisticated techniques, such as social engineering, phishing, malware, or exploiting unpatched software vulnerabilities to bypass security controls and exfiltrate sensitive data. Once the data is acquired, they may sell it on the dark web, use it for identity theft, or leverage it for further attacks on the organization or its customers.

The scope of damages resulting from a data breach are far-reaching and multifaceted, often impacting an organization — as well as its customers, employees, and stakeholders — in numerous areas, each diminishing the organization’s financial profile.

Financial Loss

Breaches aren’t cheap. Financial losses, in fact, are often the most apparent aftermath of a data breach, as organizations face direct costs to underwrite investigation, remediation, recovering lost data, and compensating affected customers. Cybersecurity insurance premiums will of course increase — and require organizations to fortify their security infrastructure. The long-term financial impact can also extend to legal settlements, penalties for non-compliance with industry regulations, and loss of intellectual property or trade secrets, hindering the organization's competitive edge and growth prospects.

Identity Theft

Identity theft resulting from a data breach can expose an organization to significant legal, financial, and reputational risks. Affected customers or employees may suffer financial or emotional harm, leading to lawsuits against the organization for inadequate security measures. What’s more, the organization may incur costs to provide identity theft protection services or compensate victims for their losses.

Breaches involving identity theft can also damage customer trust and brand reputation, resulting in lost sales and customer attrition. Additionally, organizations may face regulatory fines or penalties for failing to safeguard personal information adequately, further exacerbating financial and legal consequences.

Reputation Damage

Reputational damage from a data breach can have lasting effects on an organization's credibility, trustworthiness, and brand value. Loss of customer trust can lead to decreased sales, customer churn, and difficulty in attracting new clients. Along the same lines, public perception in the wake of breach headlines can damage business partnerships and investor confidence. In competitive industries, reputational harm can sink market share and profitability. Even attracting and retaining skilled employees may become challenging.

Legal Penalties

Organizations failing to protect sensitive data may face legal penalties and fines. The damages multiply if they are found to have violated data protection regulations such as GDPR, SOX, or HIPAA.

Organizations may face lawsuits from affected customers, employees, or business partners, resulting in costly settlements or judgments. Regulatory authorities can impose fines and penalties for inadequate security practices or failure to promptly disclose the breach. Additionally, organizations may be subject to mandatory audits, monitoring, or reporting requirements as part of enforcement actions, increasing legal costs and operational burdens.

Business Disruptions

Data breaches can disrupt business operations, resulting in downtime, lost productivity, and revenue. This unproductive time is due to teams working to mitigate damage and prevent whatever led to the loss from reoccurring.

Operational disruptions caused by data breaches can hinder productivity and require significant resources to manage incident response, system recovery, and the implementation of new security measures.

Loss of Intellectual Property

Loss of intellectual property (IP) in a data breach can dismantle an organization's competitive edge and future revenue streams. Competitors can exploit stolen IP, such as trade secrets, proprietary technology, and research findings, to overtake the organization's market position. Data breaches involving IP can also deter potential business partners or investors who may question the organization's ability to protect valuable assets.

Preventative Costs

Organizations that suffer a breach may be required to invest in additional security measures to prevent future breaches. These measures can be costly, especially if done on mandated timelines to maintain compliance or meet legal mandates.

How Do Data Breaches Happen?

Data breaches are caused by several factors, 74% of which include the human element, either through error, privilege misuse, stolen credentials, or social engineering, according to the 2023 Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR). DBIR also shows that 83% of breaches involved external actors, and the primary motivation for attacks remains financial gain.

When data breaches are caused by malicious actors, several attack patterns often contribute to the unauthorized access and exposure of sensitive information.

Direct Attack

Malicious actors take advantage of vulnerabilities in the IT organization and use them to gain escalated privileges or avoid security controls. In some cases, the attackers capitalize on mistakes in implementation or management. In others, they directly leverage novel attacks and vulnerabilities that organizations cannot prepare for.


Attackers leverage malicious software to infiltrate computers or networks to steal sensitive information or create tunnels granting them access to internal networks. These attacks can include ransomware that exfiltrates sensitive data while locking it from legitimate access.

Insider Threats

Internal users such as employees or contractors misuse their legitimate access to systems to steal sensitive information. These cybercriminals are challenging to detect as their access to data may appear normal and not stand out to detection-based controls looking for signs of external attack.

Physical Theft

Criminals stealing physical devices such as laptops, mobile phones, or hard drives from employees working remotely or traveling can quickly gain access to the sensitive information they contain.

When it comes to data breaches stemming from employee mistakes, the breach could likely have been avoided had the organization been aware of its data's risky position.

One way in which data breaches stem from mistakes is when inadequate access controls are in place. Data may be over-exposed when permissions are too lax, and individuals have access to sensitive information that is unnecessary for their job functions. Similarly, data may also be left in locations accessible to unauthorized individuals who can access it without authentication or effort.

Misconfigurations that lead to data breaches may occur when IT assets are initially configured. Failure to follow best practices or account for all aspects of how other cloud or network assets are configured can expose data or make it easier for attackers to gain access.

Figure 1: Potential ways that sensitive data stored in S3 buckets can be exposed.

Failure to maintain systems adequately can also make it easier for cybercriminals to lead successful attacks. Systems not patched promptly may have easily identified vulnerabilities that cyber attackers can exploit, allowing them access to systems that may otherwise have been too well secured to attack.

Alternatively, some human mistakes are unpredictable. Cybercriminals may target employees using phishing attacks to trick well-intentioned employees into revealing confidential information or inadvertently granting access to them. Additionally, employees make mistakes and may send emails with sensitive information to the wrong recipients or share data with individuals who should not have access, leading to a data breach.

The Prevalence of Data Breaches

Can it happen to you? We know data breaches have become a persistent challenge for organizations of all sizes and across all industries. Still, a part of us thinks we’re immune. But having avoided making headlines to this point doesn’t mean we won’t become the next.

As people increasingly live their lives online, sending volumes of personal data to the cloud each day, attackers seek their next payday. The Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) defines the surge in breaches, reporting a 78% increase in data breaches in the US, affecting over 353 million individuals.

Among notable incidents was the breach at the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), which exposed an unprecedented 815 million records, primarily Covid-related health data. Across industries, software faced serious breaches with Progress Software and Okta, where over 60 million and 32 million records, respectively, were compromised. The financial sector witnessed a major breach at Latitude Financial, impacting 14 million records. In healthcare, the Meow ransomware gang attacked Vanderbilt University Medical Center, while HCA Healthcare had to notify 11.27 million patients that their information was stolen from an external storage location.

The nature of these attacks varied, with supply chain attacks targeting companies like 3CX and Cisco IOS XE, highlighting the extensive impact of such breaches.

The trend underscores the urgent need for enhanced cybersecurity measures and strategies to protect sensitive information in an increasingly interconnected and digitalized world.

‍How to Prevent Data Breaches

As the security landscape continues to change, professionals should focus on key areas to fortify their organization's cybersecurity posture and protect valuable data assets.

People and Data Asset Protection

The human factor remains a significant vulnerability in any cybersecurity strategy. Security engineers and CISOs must work together to create comprehensive security awareness programs that educate employees on the latest threats, such as phishing and social engineering tactics. Organizations should tailor these programs to different roles within the organization and provide practical guidance on how employees can protect sensitive data and avoid falling victim to attacks.

Granular Access Control

The adoption of Zero Trust security architectures has become imperative in today's multicloud environments. Shifting the focus from perimeter-based security to a granular, data-centric approach, Zero Trust emphasizes continuous validation of user identities. Security engineers should work closely with CISOs to design and implement Zero Trust frameworks, incorporating elements such as strong authentication, microsegmentation, and least-privilege access controls to reduce the attack surface and risk of data breach.

Vendor Management

Another critical area for security professionals is the growing prominence of supply chain attacks, which target third-party vendors and software dependencies to infiltrate a larger organization's network. CISOs must collaborate with procurement and vendor management teams to develop effective vendor risk assessment processes. Security engineers, on the other hand, should focus on implementing strong security controls around software development and deployment pipelines, such as secure code reviews, vulnerability scanning, and automated testing.

Automated Protection with AI and ML Technologies

The integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) in cybersecurity tools enable organizations to analyze vast amounts of data quickly to identify patterns and uncover potential threats. By leveraging AI and ML, security engineers and CISOs can create more proactive defense strategies that adapt to the ever-changing tactics of cybercriminals. Additionally, AI-powered tools can automate repetitive tasks, allowing security teams to focus on higher-level strategic planning and incident response.

Data Security Posture Management

A comprehensive data security strategy enables organizations to discover, classify, protect, and govern their cloud data to prevent data breaches. Using a unique combination of assessment and monitoring, a complete solution can be created to safeguard an organization's data. A powerful and extensive platform should provide data risk visibility in real time, helping to locate, classify, and prioritize data risk in multiple public cloud environments.

Data security posture management (DSPM) and data detection and response (DDR) capabilities redefine data security, providing significant advantages over traditional security solutions. The cloud-native and agentless approach combining DSPM, data loss prevention (DLP), and data detection and response (DDR) equips organizations with a comprehensive data security strategy tailored to the modern threat landscape.

Data Breach FAQs

Access control is a vital security mechanism that restricts and manages user access to resources within a cloud environment. It enforces the principle of least privilege, ensuring that users only have the necessary permissions to perform their job functions. The implementation of access control typically involves authentication, authorization, and auditing. Authentication verifies a user's identity, while authorization determines the resources and actions a user is permitted to access. Auditing monitors and records user activities, providing valuable insights for security analysis and incident response. Judicious access control helps prevent unauthorized access and data breaches by limiting potential attack surfaces and reducing the risk of insider threats.

An ACL consists of a set of rules, each specifying a user or a group, the associated resource, and the type of access granted or denied. The access permissions can include read, write, execute, delete, or a combination of these actions. When a user or a group attempts to access a resource, the system checks the ACL to determine whether the requested action is allowed or not.

ACLs and bucket policies, for instance, determine who can access data in an S3 bucket. If these aren’t set up correctly, a data breach could result.

A discretionary access control list (DACL) is controlled by the resource owner who can grant or deny access permissions to specific users or groups at their discretion. DACLs are commonly used in file systems and operating systems to manage access to files and directories.
A SACL is managed by the system administrator and is used to control access to system-level resources, such as network devices or services. SACLs are often used for auditing purposes, as they can track successful or unsuccessful access attempts and generate logs for further analysis.
Attackers may employ various social engineering techniques, such as phishing, pretexting, or baiting, to deceive individuals into divulging sensitive information or credentials. Social engineering attacks can lead to cloud data loss and breaches by providing attackers with the means to bypass security measures, gain access to critical systems, and exfiltrate sensitive data.

Cloud data protection is the process of securing sensitive information stored within cloud environments. It involves implementing a combination of security measures, such as encryption, access control, data backup, and data loss prevention to safeguard data from unauthorized access, tampering, or loss.

Cloud data protection also includes adherence to regulatory compliance, such as GDPR, HIPAA, or PCI DSS, to ensure the privacy and security of personally identifiable information (PII) and other sensitive data.

Data loss prevention (DLP) is a security approach that focuses on identifying, monitoring, and protecting sensitive data within an organization's cloud infrastructure to prevent unauthorized access, exposure, or theft. DLP solutions typically involve the use of policies, rules, and classification techniques to detect and control the flow of sensitive information across various cloud resources, applications, and network boundaries.

Often resulting from weak authentication mechanisms, misconfigurations, or compromised credentials, data access refers to unauthorized individuals gaining access to sensitive information within an organization's network or cloud environments. While it's the initial stage of a breach, it may not lead to data exposure or theft.

Data exposure, on the other hand, happens when sensitive information is made accessible to unauthorized individuals, usually due to misconfigurations, software vulnerabilities, or human errors. For example, a misconfigured cloud storage bucket with public access could expose sensitive data to anyone with the link. When unauthorized individuals see or access the exposed data, it constitutes unauthorized access.

Data theft involves the actual unauthorized acquisition, copying, or transfer of sensitive information from an organization's systems with the intent to use the data for personal gain or malicious activities. Data theft is a serious offense and inflicts the most severe outcome of a data breach, as it typically results in direct harm to the affected organization and individuals.

A cyberattack is a broad term encompassing any malicious attempt to compromise, disrupt, or damage digital assets, networks, or systems. Cyberattacks include a wide range of activities, such as hacks, denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, and spreading malware. A breach, on the other hand, specifically refers to an incident where unauthorized individuals access sensitive or confidential data. While breaches often result from cyberattacks, not all cyberattacks lead to breaches. For example, a DoS attack may disrupt an organization's services without compromising sensitive data.
A data leak refers to the unintentional exposure of sensitive information, often resulting from misconfigurations, human errors, or software vulnerabilities. Unlike a data breach, where malicious actors actively exploit security flaws to gain unauthorized access to confidential data, a data leak occurs without deliberate intent. The primary difference between the two lies in the nature of the incident: data breaches involve intentional unauthorized access by external or internal threat actors, while data leaks are accidental exposures that may or may not be exploited by unauthorized individuals. Organizations need to address both types of incidents.
Hacktivism refers to cybercrime used to advance a political or ideological agenda. It targets specific organizations or governments to promote a political or social cause, expose perceived injustices, or bring attention to an issue.
Cyber warfare is when nation-states conduct cyberattacks against foreign governments or organizations to disrupt critical infrastructure, gather intelligence, or undermine national security.