Preventing Data Breaches

Data breach prevention involves a set of security protocols crucial for any business which maintains a web presence and stores sensitive information on an online server. As cybercriminals devise new methods for bypassing security layers and cracking secret codes, companies must remain at least several steps ahead and protect data security.

What Is a Data Breach?

A data breach is a cyber intrusion of a company’s computer system, perpetrated by an unauthorized third party. In a data breach, the hackers obtain private information from the database of said company. The information might be of a critical nature, such as the private information of customers.

Hackers who target commercial businesses often go after lists that contain customer credit card numbers. Hackers have also targeted enterprises and government organizations to gain access to private emails. In some cases, the motive is to simply bring down a business and expose its clientele, such as when hackers leaked the member identities of dating site AshleyMadison.com.

Breaches are sometimes enabled by overlooked system vulnerabilities on the part of the company, which may be found in violation of regulatory compliances and fined on those grounds. Other times, the hacker acts alone or as part of a group of cyber thieves who penetrate a company’s database to access money, account information, blueprints and other top secrets. Unfortunately, some of the worst data breaches go undetected for upwards of six months, by which time untold sums of data will have leaked.

Common Causes of Data Breaches

Why do data breaches happen? In many cases, it boils down to oversights in data protection. In other instances, insiders or associates compromise data security. The most common causes of breaches include:

1. Weak Passwords

One of the most common reasons why data breaches occur is that many organizations fail to select foolproof passwords. Believe it or not, many companies choose passwords that are so easy to remember that they are also easy to guess. For example, a company founded in 2006 might select a password with the characters “companyname2006” or “companyname06.” Often, hackers will do a quick run-through of the most obvious possibilities when trying to crack a company’s password.

To prevent hackers from cracking any of the passwords to your company’s database, it is crucial to create passwords that are at least eight characters long and contain a mixture of uppercase and lowercase letters, as well as numbers and non-alphanumeric characters.

2. Human Error

Some of the worst cyber breaches are the direct result of errors on the part of company insiders. Sometimes, the action in question will not seem like a mistake at first, at least not among the people responsible. For example, if company personnel exchange sensitive private data on an unencrypted email server, the messages could easily be hacked by a third party.

In some cases, the cause of the breach is even more obvious, such as when company personnel accidentally leak classified info to the world at large. This could happen when a bulk email intended for select company staff contains the email addresses of thousands of customers in the blind carbon copy.

3. Outdated Systems

Computer systems and software programs update periodically for two primary reasons. The main reason is that technology improves rapidly and newer programs account for these changes with more advanced functions and features. Unfortunately, some companies are content with older systems, either because they do not wish to invest in the newer programs or are wary of the learning curve. This decision has its consequences.

The second reason why programmers constantly turn out new and updated versions of system programs is that previous versions often become compromised by hackers. As such, your company must keep its computer programs up-to-date to keep your data secure.

4. Malware

The most deceptive outside source of system vulnerability is malware, which can infect a company’s database and leak info to the outside. Malware will often infect a company system in the form of a .exe file that downloads onto a network computer and immediately activates, taking over all the computers on the network.

Phishing emails with strange headers often contain malware files. In some cases, the malware is disguised as a legit program and might even bear the name of a known and widely used anti-virus software.

5. Attacks on Secondary Entities

Some of the more clever hackers will attempt to access secure data by first targeting the organization’s smaller partners. Often, smaller companies that engage in business with larger corporations will not employ the same level of security, either due to budgetary constraints or a less developed infrastructure. As such, one of these smaller companies might have a weakness in their database, and a hacker could exploit this to gain access to private info, which may contain info on how to enter the larger corporation’s database. To prevent this, all companies down the chain should employ uniform measures of system security.

How to Prevent a Data Breach

Hackers are constantly developing new ways to hack into the private digital information of businesses around the world. You can protect your company’s vital information with the following data breach security measures:

1. Train Your Staff

Make sure that your staff is trained on all facets of cybersecurity. These training sessions should occur periodically to ensure that everyone is up-to-date on the latest concerns that pertain to system security, such as new software patches and protocols. Conduct tests now and then to gauge the competence of each staffer on the crucial matters of cybersecurity.

2. Protect All Data

All company data should be protected at all times, whether it happens to be relevant, sensitive data or outdated, inconsequential data. For data in the former category, make sure that it is encrypted with the latest state-of-the-art software. If a set of data is no longer necessary for your operations or records, have it wiped from your servers and hard drives. If paper documents of the data exist, have them shredded before disposal.

3. Implement Strong Passwords

For maximum protection, passwords must be complicated, convoluted and free of any company jargon, secret hints or acronyms. A password should never be simple or easy-to-remember, as someone with a bit of inside info just might crack the code. All company passwords should be changed every six months.

4. Monitor the Transfer of Data

All data that gets transferred across your company’s network and onward to third parties should be monitored every step of the way. Likewise, the sources of all incoming data should be verified before entry into your system. It is much more difficult for unauthorized parties to access your system if all info passing to and fro is monitored at all times.

5. Restrict Access

Restrict access to vital layers of data to the people who work in the departments in question. Sensitive data should only be handled by personnel who are directly trained to handle such information and should not be accessed by other branches of staff.

6. Patch Vulnerabilities

Holes in a company’s computer system often enable data breaches. It is, therefore, crucial to keep all system software updated with the latest versions and security patches. If necessary, conduct training sessions to ensure all company personnel are up-to-date on the system protocols.

7. Encrypt All Data and Devices

Company data should only be stored on encrypted devices with no exceptions to the rule. Non-encrypted storage — be it local, online or cloud-based — is simply too risky for any company, as data can easily be compromised when it lacks the added security layer of encryption.

8. Double-Layer Authentication

When it comes to system access, two layers of security are always more foolproof than one. In addition to a password, each authorized staffer should have to pass another security layer to access system data. Some of the most effective options in this regard include fingerprint and facial recognition.

9. Restrict Downloading

No data of a sensitive nature should be downloaded onto local physical drives unless necessary for a given operation. Vital data stored on encrypted servers should only be viewable with suspensions placed on all copy-and-save options, including screen-capture and right-clicking functions.

10. Establish a Plan of Action

When systems are under attack, everyone should be on alert, especially if a breach has affected one of your company’s partner entities. If a hacker manages to access info from the system of a company with whom you do business, that hacker will be only one step away from accessing your system. This would be the time to tighten the reins and place your IT staff on 24-hour alert for possible intrusions. Even when your company has implemented the latest security updates, your team will need to be on its toes when news comes in about potential cyber attacks.

Handling a Data Breach

A data breach can bring down a business if it doesn’t immediately act to halt the crime and reverse the damage. If your company falls prey to cyber hacking, enact the following steps the moment you discover such activity:

1. Halt the Breach

The moment a company finds a breach, it should halt the problem as soon as possible, if not immediately. While it is not always possible to instantly identify the source of the attack, every action should be taken to close the hole and prevent the leakage of further system data.

If you already have an in-house staff of computer programmers to handle this sort of affair, they should be on this matter around the clock until the breach is stopped. The first thing is to identify the hole in the code that gave the hacker access to your company’s data. That hole must be shut immediately, even if it means temporarily curtailing operations until the issue is solved. If you can trace the attack to an IP address, block that IP from your computer network and report the number to the FBI.

2. Assess the Damage

As soon as the breach is stopped, perform a full-scale system examination to determine the extent of the damage. How sensitive is the affected data? Did the hacker gain access to the credit card numbers or social security numbers of your customers? Was there a leak of secrets that hold widespread implications, or did the hacker merely gain access to a list of email addresses?

It is also crucial to determine the nature of the attack. Did the hacker simply crack a password and gain access through a simple login prompt? Or was the attack made through an overlooked hole in your company’s computer system code?

3. Report the Matter

Once you have the situation under control, report the matter to all concerned parties, such as customers, business associates and partnered entities. Let each party know the full extent of the breach and how it will affect each one of them. If sensitive data was leaked that could leave those affected at risk, inform those people immediately. If credit card numbers were leaked, make this publicly known through a mass email and an announcement to the media.

The situation must also be reported to the branches of law enforcement tasked with matters of cybersecurity.

4. Perform an Audit

All companies should undergo security audits on a routine basis. In the aftermath of a data breach, a special audit is necessary to pinpoint the system weaknesses that enabled the attack. The audit may conclude that your system security is out-of-date, in which case you will need to invest in updates.

Once the breach has been fully assessed, your company will need to implement a routine DNS audit if you haven’t taken such measures already. These audits will include full-scale examinations of your company’s system surface area, as well as inspections of open ports, IP blocks and server systems.

5. Update Your Recovery Plan

Now that your company has been attacked, you will need to revise some of your security measures to account for what went wrong and to prevent it from happening again. As things stand, your company could be vulnerable to a second attack — either from the same perpetrator or a different hacker — if you fail to take these measures. After all, your company could look like a soft target, having already been the subject of a breach.

Some of the areas to cover in the list of revisions may include employee training and a revised set of security standards for all partnered entities. If the breach directly resulted from mistakes made by in-house personnel, your updated list of company policies should include protocols designed to preclude such errors.

Contact PCS for Data Security

In today’s globally digitized world, data protection is one of the foremost concerns of all businesses. Whether your company is small or large, it is crucial to have all of your private info secured on encrypted servers with foolproof layers of protection. Even then, you should always have IT technicians who will be on guard and ready to identify and stop any suspicious activity.

At PCS, we offer managed IT and rapid response IT for businesses. Our technicians will help you stop breaches before they occur or, if you contact us after the fact, help you recover from a belatedly detected cyber attack. Contact us today for more information on our data security services.