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What Is Data Exfiltration? (And How To Prevent It)

Big data is a powerful currency. It can make or break an individual or business, especially if it gets into the wrong hands. Important data could mean classified financial or sensitive personal information that should be exclusively for your eyes only.

Data protection is a critical component of any cyber risk management plan to prepare for the worst events, like a data breach. Attackers will poke at your system’s or network’s vulnerability to gain access to confidential information and sell it on the dark web, steal assets, or use it against your business.

Attackers that infiltrate your network and tamper with your data or steal your information can be an extremely dangerous scenario for a business.

How Data Exfiltration Works

Data exfiltration (also coined as data extrusion, data theft, data exfil, and data exportation) happens when data is stolen. It’s the deliberate transfer or extraction of sensitive and private data from an organization without asking for permission. 

Data exfiltration involves stealing different types of data, such as the following:

  • Login credentials, including usernames and passwords
  • Personal data of your employees and/or customers
  • Keys to encrypted data
  • Software algorithms
  • Company data involving financial documents or intellectual property
  • Sensitive financial information such as bank account information and credit card numbers

Attackers often use email to attempt data exfiltration. Businesses all over the world use emails every single day, so it’s not surprising that it’s a classic favorite for data theft. Companies rely on email to communicate with employees and other people outside of the organization, such as sharing spreadsheets, sending memos, submitting important financial information or reports, sharing invoices, and the like. 

In addition, external or internal threats prey on employees by launching ransomware or malware and phishing attacks, all of which commonly rely on emails to carry out the attack.

Accessing cloud storage, devices, or servers is also another way to perform data exfiltration and access confidential information.

An attacker can easily gain access to a company’s vital data by using the following methods:

  • Tapping on and hacking on any potential vulnerability in the system
  • Phishing or installing malware
  • Using stolen login credentials from the dark web or from phishing

Most hacking incidents are done with brute force either by physical or remote access. Attackers can copy or transfer sensitive data onto a storage device, laptop, or USB drive and simply leave the office as if nothing happened. This would usually happen when employees or contractors are involved in data exfiltration.

Data exfiltration may involve insider or outsider threats: 

  • Data Exfiltration by an Insider – Data exfiltration can be an inside job or done by someone who is a part of your organization. This could be a staff or an ex-employee who has access to company data or knows the login credentials to access critical data.
  • Data Exfiltration by an Outsider – When data exfiltration involves outsiders or those who are not directly involved with your company, secure data systems are infiltrated, and company data is stolen remotely.

How To Prevent Data Exfiltration

Stealing data from a server or device takes little time to execute, but the time for an individual or organization to discover the breach is often much longer. The good news is that there are ways to prevent data exfiltration. Here are a few best practices that will help to mitigate your risk. 

1. Train Your Staff or Employees

It’s essential to keep your staff in the loop and involved with keeping information secure and protected in the organization. Have security protocols in place and educate them so they can spot phishing attacks or warning signs of a data breach and report them accordingly.

2. Block and Deny Non-Trusted Software

Blocking and denying certain software, domains, or email providers can help safeguard your system from cyberattacks. However, this method isn’t foolproof, especially because many trusted email providers, domains, and software used for work and team communications can be used to carry out attacks. 

3. Tag and Label Confidential Data

With the help of DLP (data loss prevention) software, you can label and tag data to classify sensitive information, and any movement or changes will cause an alert in the system. It’s a manual process, so it can be time-consuming and may not be reliable because of human error.

4. Invest in Email Data Loss Prevention 

Email is an important collaboration or communication tool in business, but this also paves the way for cybercrimals to gain unauthorized access to your company’s sensitive data.

Insiders can conduct data exfiltration attacks from within the company premises using email to send sensitive data to external or third-party accounts. In the same way, outsiders also use email to mount ransomware and phishing attacks targeted toward employees.

Phishing emails appear to be legitimate but have attachments or links that can infect the device or direct unsuspecting users to spoofed websites that are meant to steal important login details when entered by the user.  

As hundreds to thousands of emails are exchanged or sent per month, the risk of data exfiltration attacks carried out via email is higher than ever. Therefore, investing in email DLP software to protect your emails and sensitive information from leaking outside of the organization is important now more than ever.

5. Perform Risk Assessments

Risk evaluations or assessments are critical to create an inventory and determine data assets that could potentially be at risk of exfiltration. You should also assess the potential damage that any exfiltration can inflict on the identified data assets.

6. Implement a Data Breach Incident Response Plan

An incident response plan is a crucial security protocol that enables organizations to quickly discover, eliminate, and recover following a cybersecurity breach. 

The data breach incident plan should include an inventory of confidential data, communication strategy and channels, and who is responsible for carrying out specific incident response tasks.

Protect Your Data with Measured Insurance

Protect your organization from data exfiltration with the best partner in cybersecurity insurance. Data threats and risks are uncharted waters for many organizations, and cybersecurity can quickly become unmanageable. You need proven and efficient systems in place to safeguard your organization from data breaches. With Measured, you have a battle-ready security partner that can help you assess and manage your organization’s risk and provide crucial recovery support should an incident occur. 

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