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What is a Data Breach? Definition, Consequences & Best Practices

By Anas Baig | Reviewed By Omer Imran Malik
Published August 19, 2023 / Updated December 13, 2023

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A data breach is akin to a home invasion. During a home invasion, a burglar would break into your home during the silence of the night and steal your valuables without you knowing it until it is too late. This is exactly what a data breach feels like to organizations.

Data breaches are a common occurrence across the globe. In fact, hundreds of thousands of businesses experience a certain level of data breach every year. To put things into perspective, IBM’s Cost of Data Breach 2022 report revealed that 83% of the surveyed organizations had experienced more than one data breach. No organization that collects personal or sensitive data is safe against the threat of unauthorized or illegal access to or loss or destruction of data. However, what they can do is take appropriate steps to prevent data breaches to some extent or minimize their impact.

But what exactly is a data breach? How does it occur? What are the consequences that organizations have to shoulder due to a breach? And, more importantly, what organizations can do to prevent or mitigate data breaches. If you wish to find answers to all these questions, we suggest you continue reading.

What Is a Data Breach?

Data breaches are security incidents that lead to loss, alteration, illegal or unauthorized destruction or unauthorized disclosure of, or unauthorized access to personal data that is processed, stored, or transmitted by an organization.

A cyber threat actor, an individual or a group, uses various tools and methods to execute a data breach. For instance, a threat actor may breach a corporate network through malware, also called malicious software. Or, they could disguise themselves as a corporate employee and send phishing emails containing malicious links to existing employees.

Often, the inherent vulnerabilities in the system or misconfigured settings give cyber attackers a way into the corporate network, such as a misconfigured cloud service or application that may have a default password or an unprotected publicly accessible storage bucket.

Data breaches have wide-reaching consequences that can greatly impact an organization's financial and reputational position. Therefore, preventing and responding to such cyber threats has become ever more critical.

For starters, we’ve witnessed the non-stop proliferation of data due to the increased number of devices, systems, and applications. In fact, we are leveraging data to generate more data. The abundance of personal data across different systems and devices creates more opportunities for attackers to gain unauthorized access to personal data. Therefore, it is important for organizations to primarily curb the occurrence of such incidents and mitigate their effects where necessary.

Secondly, and most importantly, due to the growing instances of data breaches and other threats, international regulatory authorities have enacted data protection and privacy laws. These laws give more control to individuals over their data and place greater responsibilities upon businesses in relation to data protection, integrity, accountability, and privacy. Hence, in the current era, a data breach means not only heavy loss of data but also huge regulatory fines.

Types of Data That Threat Actors Breach

There are different types of data that cyber attackers attempt to access or steal during a data breach, such as:

Personally Identifiable Information

Personally identifiable information (PII) is any information that can be used (often with another PII) to identify or distinguish between two individuals. This type of information includes an individual’s name, email address, phone number, date of birth, etc. Apart from that, PII also has a sub-category, i.e., sensitive personal information (SPI). As the name suggests, it includes any piece of information whose exposure to unauthorized persons can potentially harm the concerned individual. This type of data includes social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, fingerprint data, and data relating to one’s ethnic origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, etc.

Learn More About Personally Identifiable Information (PII)

Health Information

Health information usually includes any category of medical data of an individual, such as medical records, imaging data (CTR or MRI), mental health data, etc. The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) in the United States defines different types of healthcare data as Personal Health Information (PHI).

Financial Information

As the name suggests, financial information includes data related to financial accounts, transactions, or assets of an individual or an organization.

Payment Card Industry (PCI) Information

Payment card data differs from financial information in that it is specific to payment cards, such as credit card data or debit card data. This type of data includes the card number, PIN, or CVV of an individual’s payment card. The Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) generally regulates payment card data.

Learn More About the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)

Military Information

This type of data includes sensitive or confidential data that is related to a government or its military bodies. This type of information includes military intelligence data, weapon patent data, etc. In the United States, military data is regulated by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).

Learn More About ITAR Compliance

Destructive Fallouts of Data Breaches

A data breach can happen even due to minor negligence - however, it can certainly result in a great deal of chaos. Equifax’s 2017 data breach is the primary example of a huge-scale data breach that occurred due to a system vulnerability that the organization could not fix in time. The resulting breach gave threat actors clear access to the data of over 130 million Americans, 15 million Britishers, and 19,000 Canadians.

When a breach occurs, it is not just the organization that suffers the consequences but also the affected individuals who are exposed to harm.

Following are some of the consequences of data breaches.

Financial Loss

Data breaches have serious implications, starting with heavy financial losses. According to the IBM Cost of Data Breach 2022 report, the average global cost of a data breach in 2022 was $4.35 million, while the average cost of a breach in the US alone in the same year was $9.44 million. Different factors impact the total cost of a breach, such as the cost of detection and escalation, breach notifications to the impacted individuals and relevant regulatory authorities, the post-breach responses and mitigation measures, and lost business opportunities.

Reputational Damage

A monetary loss is easier to recover than a loss of trust. Data breaches can negatively impact an organization's reputation, which takes years to build. In fact, it can have a long-lasting impact on an organization’s ability to re-establish itself, gain positive reviews, or earn the trust of consumers or the general public. Moreover, negative media coverage also adds more fuel to the fire, making it more challenging to retain customers or even business partners.

Regulatory Fines

Data protection laws are very strict when it comes to security breaches. Almost every data protection law requires businesses to have optimal administrative and technical security controls in place for protecting data against unauthorized access, leak, destruction, loss of data, etc. Apart from that, data privacy laws also provide notification requirements in the event of a breach.

For instance, articles 33 and 34 of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) outline that a personal data breach, which would likely put the rights and freedom of data subjects at risk, must be notified. In this regard, businesses must notify the relevant supervisory authority and the impacted individuals where the breach will likely result in a ‘high’ risk to their rights and freedoms.

Failure to notify the breach to the concerned authorities and individuals in a timely manner can result in huge fines and penalties.

Lost Business Opportunities

A data breach may make an organization lose its ability to seek new business opportunities or bid on new contracts, as any potential business partners would only seek businesses with a good market reputation and are more secure.

Top Threat Vectors That Lead to Data Breaches

There is a myriad of tactics in cybercriminals’ arsenal that they are not afraid to use to make their data breach attempt successful. Let’s take a quick look at some of the most common yet effective ways in which threat actors execute data breaches.


Malware includes trojans, keyloggers, ransomware, and other types of malicious software that cybercriminals may use to steal data. For instance, a cybercriminal might disguise a malicious URL as a lottery or giveaway coupon to bait unsuspecting users.

Insider Threats

According to a recent insider threats report, 74% of organizations believe that insider attacks have become more frequent over the years. The report goes on to cite that 60% of organizations have experienced at least one insider attack, while 25% have suffered multiple attacks. An insider attack is any data breach that occurs when a person within an organization, intentionally or unintentionally, gains unauthorized or illegal access to sensitive, confidential, or proprietary information.

Learn About Six Different Insider Threats

Security Misconfigurations

It is a pretty common type of cybersecurity vulnerability where security settings or configurations are not properly implemented, especially in cloud offerings. In a multi-cloud environment, businesses may have multiple cloud service providers. Each service has a distinct set of configurations. Due to the complex infrastructure of a multi-cloud environment and often due to a lack of understanding of different settings, some key security misconfigurations may be overlooked. This ultimately leads to a security breach. A misconfiguration may include publicly accessible cloud storage, default passwords, opened internal or external ports, etc.

Social Engineering Attacks

Since humans are the weakest link in cybersecurity defenses, data breaches constituting social engineering attacks are often successful. These attacks are geared towards humans and are meant to manipulate them into taking certain actions, such as clicking a malicious link with malware or sharing sensitive information. There are many ways to conduct a social engineering attack, such as phishing, tailgating, spear phishing, etc.

Understanding Data Breach Cycle

Every cyber attacker uses a distinct tool or method to steal data into a target’s network or system. However, on a broader level, the process of the attack remains the same.


The first is the research or observation phase. In this phase, the cyber attacker carefully and methodically picks the target, making sure that it is easier to breach or reach the target. The perpetrator tries to find the target’s weaknesses to determine what method would best fit the breach attempt. This phase involves hours and days of observation, and it often brings forth expected results.


The next is the intrusion phase, where the perpetrator tries to make the initial contact. Since the attacker has the requisite understanding of the target, it is easier for them to execute the breach attempt. If it is a system or a network, the cyber attacker may look for vulnerabilities, open ports, or any misconfigured system. If it is an individual or an employee, the perpetrator would first stalk the individual on their social media profiles to learn more about them in order to be able to conduct a targeted social engineering attack.


Once the attacker is successful in the breach, they will try to extract and transfer the sensitive data outside the corporate network. In this phase, the attacker can do a number of things with the breached data or the targeted system. For instance, the attacker may sell data on the dark web or use it to cause damage to concerned individuals, such as through blackmail or harassment, or the attacker may use a compromised system for distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks.

Best Practices to Prevent & Mitigate Data Breaches

Here are some of the best practices you can consider to prevent or mitigate data breaches.

Data Risk Assessment

As we have learned so far, data breaches can be costly and chaotic for a company’s reputation. Therefore, it is crucial for businesses to reinforce cyber defense mechanisms around their sensitive networks, data systems, and the sensitive data itself.

To kick it off, assess the current state of your organization’s sensitive data assets and security. Review your organization's data landscape and see what sensitive data you have and what regulatory security guidelines apply to it. Moreover, assess the current security status of the sensitive data to pinpoint security gaps and reasonably foreseeable threats that may exploit the business mechanisms and vulnerabilities of the systems.

Identify & Mitigate Sensitive Data Risks with Securiti Data Command Center

Discover & classify sensitive data across hybrid multi-cloud and SaaS environments with Data Security Posture Management (DSPM), a integrated solution within Securiti Data Command Center. Leverage these insights to identify misconfigurations, remediate risks, govern sensitive data access & secure data in motion.

Learn More

Security Configuration Management

One of the most common reasons for cloud security breaches is a misconfiguration. These issues or security lapses arise when the cloud services or applications’ security settings are not implemented or configured with errors. For instance, the cloud service may have inadequate user access controls, or its password is set by default, or the sensitive storage bucket is left public by default.

Conduct a thorough analysis to discover and identify security misconfigurations across your cloud data assets. Remediate the configuration errors automatically or manually, as feasible. You would require an automated multi-cloud data asset discovery mechanism to save time and reduce human errors.

User Access Controls

Businesses cannot fight off data breaches effectively if they do not have proper insights into who is accessing sensitive data, from where, how often, and what privileged access rights they have. It is challenging to address data breaches or unauthorized access instances without having those insights or implementing a least privilege principle. Therefore, gathering these much-needed sensitive data access insights is essential to implement appropriate access policies.

Sensitive Data Protection Mechanisms

Businesses should review the existing security mechanisms and policies around their sensitive data and systems regularly while keeping regulatory compliance in view. This way, businesses can better determine which data needs to be encrypted, made publicly available, truncated, tokenized, or masked.

Timely Security Patching

Most data breaches also occur due to security vulnerabilities in data systems. Outdated systems tend to have vulnerabilities that, if not patched in time, can definitely attract a cyber attack, such as in the case of Equifax. Therefore, create a regular review policy to periodically analyze the system’s security status and update any security patches in a timely manner.

Employee Training

Even if an organization reinforces its entire corporate infrastructure against security incidents to the best of its ability, it can still face data breaches due to human error or negligence. Human negligence has wide-ranging implications on an organization’s cyber security and, ultimately, its reputation. An employee can easily fall victim to a phishing or social engineering attack with just a click on a link.

The only way to prevent cyber mishaps is by training your employees and giving them data security and privacy awareness. Create training programs for employees and make it a part of the initial orientation so they maintain proper cyber hygiene. Moreover, at the end of employment, appropriate measures should be taken, such as the return of physical assets or removal of the organization’s data, access rights, and privileges from the employee’s personal device, to ensure the security and integrity of the organization’s data and systems.

Simplify Breach Prevention and Response with Automated Data Breach Analysis

As a core component of Data Command Center, Securiti’s Data Breach Analysis helps organizations automate their data breach management, prior to and post the occurrence of a breach incident, in an effective manner. The module provides clear insights into the radius of the breach, its financial impact, and regulatory obligations. Also, it allows organizations to make timely notifications using pre-built templates and prescribed notification formats and maintain centralized audit trails of how a breach incident was managed and remediated.

Request a demo to see Data Breach Analysis in action.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

A data breach is an unauthorized or unintended access, disclosure, or loss of personal or sensitive data, potentially exposing it to unauthorized parties.

A data breach is an unauthorized access event, while a data leak is the unintentional disclosure of data, often caused by misconfigurations or mistakes.

Yes, a data breach is a significant security risk, as it can lead to the exposure of sensitive information, financial losses, legal liabilities, and damage to an organization's reputation.

Types of data breaches include hacking, insider threats, accidental disclosure, physical theft of devices, and third-party breaches involving vendors.

Data breaches can happen through various social engineering attacks, such as hacking, phishing, malware, human error, insider threats, unsecured devices, and vulnerabilities in software or systems.

Protecting against data breaches involves implementing strong organizational and technical measures that may include cybersecurity measures, educating employees about security best practices, conducting regular security audits, and having incident response plans.

Common causes of data breaches include weak passwords, unpatched software vulnerabilities, phishing attacks, human error, inadequate security measures, and insider threats.

Data breaches are not legal because they often involve unauthorized access to sensitive information. Organizations have legal obligations to take preventive measures and report breaches to impacted individuals and regulatory authorities when they occur. Organizations may face hefty penalties because of not implementing appropriate technical and organizational measures to protect the data of consumers.

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