How Businesses Can Protect Themselves From a Data Breach

The age-old canard, “Trust me, I’m from the government,” has been around for hundreds of years and has been greeted universally with a smirk or a chortle. However, it probably was never used in the context of a data breach discussion. There have been massive data breaches involving individuals’ data coming from governmental entities. These breaches include two noteworthy events from the recent past: the 2012 breach that compromised the personally identifiable information (PII) of 3.6 million South Carolina taxpayers and the 2011 compromise of the PII of more than 8.3 million U.K. citizens when a National Health Service laptop was stolen.

PII is just one data set with identified value. Nations also have nation-state secrets that must be protected. The protection afforded these nation-state secrets has led to their public dissection by a wayward insider or two who opted to break trust and lay before the court of public opinion whether the decisions, actions or intentions of different governments, organizations or leaders were appropriate.

Fast-forward to the business side of the equation, and one would think the lessons introduced by the governmental breaches would provide a sufficient impetus to all businesses, be they large enterprises or small- and medium-sized businesses (SMBs), to take every possible precaution to protect their sensitive data. Yet the past 12 months have shown that size doesn’t matter when it comes to data breaches. Though an enterprise breach carries a larger footprint than one against an SMB, the data lost has an identical effect on the victims. For those entities that have the misfortune of experiencing a data breach involving PII, their remediation puts their hands deep in their pockets.

According to the Ponemon Institute, remediation on average had businesses ponying up $3.5 million (or $145 per record) when all was said and done. For those entities that lost their intellectual property or trade secrets, quantifying the cost of the loss may not be as cleanly calculated, though it carries the potential of being substantially higher than the cost of losing PII. The loss of one’s intellectual property or trade secrets has the very real potential of putting the affected company out of a market, if not out of business.

The Online Trust Alliance (OTA) recently revealed in its 2015 Data Protection Best Practices and Risk Assessment Guides that more than 90 percent of the 2014 data breaches could have been prevented using available technologies or adherence to basic processes and procedures.

External Intrusions

Networks and devices are constantly being targeted, with the OTA’s study showing 40 percent of data breaches were caused by external intrusions. In the recent slew of retail transaction system data breaches, the cybercriminals used a bit of social engineering and acquired the credentials of a third-party vendor to access the internal network of the targeted entity. Attention must be paid to investing in access controls, especially those afforded access via the side door of the vendor relationship, where visibility into the third party’s ecosystem is not as robust as the organization’s visibility into its own.

Equally important is the need to wrap one’s arms around the personal devices that connect to a company’s networks. One must also address the security of applications used by the company and ensure security considerations are taken into account when designing applications used by clients and customers.

Lost Devices and Social Engineering

As previously mentioned, social engineering of the insider is the fast track to system access. The OTA found that 29 percent of the data breaches were caused by employee error, either by lost devices and documents (18 percent) or social engineering and fraud (11 percent). These are both areas in which an investment in employee education would pay immediate dividends. Ongoing education on phishing techniques and social engineering methodologies are wise investments since the individual with natural access to sensitive data may be the weakest link in the data protection schema. Similarly, ensuring devices and data stores that contain PII or sensitive company documents are encrypted could have largely mitigated the two data breaches discussed above.

Data Breach From Insiders

Far too often, companies expect their employees to protect their data but fail to direct and provide the educational resources on how, exactly, the employee should make that happen. When malicious employees cross the chasm of ethical decision-making, detection largely depends on their exceeding their natural access of behavioral queues evidenced within the workplace. Well-meaning employees who inadvertently put the company at risk are omnipresent. They may share access credentials, leave devices unattended or create their own workaround methodologies that run outside the company’s infrastructure — all in an effort to perform their job more efficiently, with nary a consideration of how their actions put the company at risk.

We’re All in This Together

Regardless of where your entity sits, data must be protected. Investing in security may not remove the possibility of a data breach, but the OTA’s sound advice to have controls designed to prevent, detect, contain and remediate data breaches will move the odds of a data breach occurring closer to zero. After all, who wants to be the one delivering the message, “Oops, I just lost your data!” to customers, clients or the C-suite?

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Christopher Burgess

CEO at Prevendra

Christopher Burgess is the CEO of Prevendra, a security, privacy and intelligence company. He is also an author, speaker and advocate for effective security strategies, be they for your company, home or family. Christopher co-authored "Secrets Stolen, Fortunes Lost: Preventing Intellectual Property Theft and Economic Espionage in the 21st Century" (Syngress, March 2008) and authored the e-book, "Senior Online Safety" (Prevendra, March 2014) and is the voice behind the website, "Senior Online Safety." Prior to the founding of Prevendra, Christopher held a variety of private and public sector positions, which included, chief operating office and chief security officer of a big data analytic company, Atigeo; Senior Security Advisor to the CSO of Cisco, a Fortune 100, and 30+ years within the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA awarded him the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal upon his retirement. Christopher resides in Woodinville, WA with his family, two dogs and two horses.