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What is a Data Leak?

A data leak occurs when information is unintentionally exposed to unauthorized individuals due to internal mistakes. This is often a result of poor data security and sanitization practices, outdated systems, or insufficient employee training. Data leaks can lead to identity theft, data breaches, or the installation of ransomware.

What is a Data Leak

What’s the Difference Between a Data Leak and a Data Breach?

Differentiating between a data leak and a data breach is crucial. Although these terms are often used interchangeably, they have a distinct difference.

Both data leaks and data breaches involve the unauthorized exposure of data, but the cause of the exposure distinguishes between the two.


A data leak occurs when internal sources inadvertently expose information. On the other hand, a data breach happens when external entities breach a system through a cyberattack. Criminals employ various methods to infiltrate networks. Essentially, a data leak is typically accidental, whereas a breach is often deliberate and malicious.

At times, the distinction between a leak and a breach becomes blurred because criminals exploit information from a data leak to orchestrate a large-scale breach. For instance, consider an email password leak. If one email account is compromised, a criminal can utilize that account to perpetrate business email compromise scams such as invoice fraud or ransomware attacks.

Criminals can leverage just one data leak to trigger a substantial data breach. Therefore, leaks pose as much of a serious threat to organizations as breaches do. Consequently, organizations must comprehend the causes of data leaks and implement measures to prevent them.

How Do Data Leaks Happen?

Data leaks typically stem from internal issues rather than cyberattacks, which offers a positive outlook for organizations. This means they have the opportunity to proactively identify and address data leaks before they are exploited by criminals.

Let’s examine some of the primary causes of data leaks.

  • Poor infrastructure: Misconfigured or outdated infrastructure can inadvertently expose data. Incorrect settings or permissions, as well as outdated software versions, may appear innocuous but can potentially compromise data. It’s essential for organizations to meticulously configure all infrastructure to safeguard data.
  • Social engineering scams: While data breaches result from cyberattacks, criminals often employ similar methods to instigate data leaks. Subsequently, they exploit these leaks to orchestrate other cyberattacks. For instance, phishing emails may successfully acquire a person’s login credentials, leading to larger data breaches.
  • Weak password policies: Many individuals use the same password across multiple accounts for convenience, but this practice can pose a significant risk. If a credential stuffing attack occurs, it could compromise multiple accounts. Even something as seemingly harmless as storing login credentials in a notebook could result in a data leak.
  • Lost devices: When an employee misplaces a device containing a company’s sensitive information, it represents a potential data breach. If a criminal gains access to the device’s contents, it could lead to identity theft or a data breach.
  • Software vulnerabilities: Outdated software or zero-day exploits can present significant cybersecurity challenges for organizations. Criminals can exploit these vulnerabilities to launch various security threats.
  • Outdated data: As businesses evolve and personnel change, organizations may lose track of outdated data. System updates and infrastructure modifications can inadvertently expose this old data.

Legacy data storage practices exacerbate the risk of data leaks, particularly in organizations experiencing turnover in information security staff. A lack of institutional knowledge regarding outdated data systems can create vulnerabilities and accidents.

It is imperative for cybersecurity systems to prevent data leaks, as criminals can easily exploit them to commit further crimes.

What Do Cybercriminals Look For in Leaked Data?

Cybercriminals are continually on the lookout for vulnerabilities and opportunities, considering leaked data as a valuable resource for their malicious activities. But what exactly are they after in leaked data, and how do they exploit it?

  • Personal Identification Information (PII): This category includes names, addresses, social security numbers, and more. Cybercriminals utilize this data for identity theft, enabling them to impersonate individuals, commit fraud, obtain credit, or gain financial advantages.
  • Financial information: Credit card details, bank account numbers, and other financial data are exploited for unauthorized transactions, fund siphoning, or sale on the dark web.
  • Login credentials: Usernames and passwords for various accounts are exploited to gain unauthorized access. Cybercriminals employ techniques like credential stuffing to access multiple platforms, capitalizing on individuals’ tendency to reuse passwords.
  • Health records: Medical information is highly valued and can be used for insurance fraud, prescription fraud, or sold to interested parties.
  • Trade secrets and intellectual property: Leaked data from corporations may contain proprietary information. Cybercriminals can sell this to competitors or engage in corporate espionage.
  • Emails and personal communications: These can be leveraged for blackmail or to launch targeted attacks, such as spear-phishing campaigns.
  • Operational data: Information about an organization’s operations, network configurations, or security practices can facilitate more sophisticated cyber-attacks.

How Do Cybercriminals Use Leaked Data?

Depending on the nature of the data, threat actors can employ leaked information for a variety of malicious purposes. Here are some actions cybercriminals undertake with leaked data:

  • Direct financial gain: They may sell the data on the dark web or utilize it for fraudulent transactions.
  • Execute phishing attacks: Leaked data enables cybercriminals to craft convincing phishing emails, appearing legitimate, to deceive individuals into divulging personal information or downloading malware.
  • Carry out ransomware attacks: Threat actors leverage leaked data to initiate ransomware attacks, encrypting the victim’s data and demanding payment for the decryption key.
  • Commit identity theft: Cybercriminals utilize leaked data to steal identities, opening bank accounts, applying for loans, or making fraudulent purchases.
  • Facilitate other criminal activities: With stolen identities, criminals can engage in a range of offline crimes, including fraud and false credit applications.
  • Reputation damage: Leaked data can be used to tarnish the reputation of high-profile entities or celebrities. As the digital landscape evolves, today’s cybercriminals continuously adapt their motives and methods. To counter these threats effectively, individuals and organizations must maintain vigilance and proactively enhance their cybersecurity measures.

Real-World Examples of Data Leaks

Understanding typical scenarios is beneficial for data governance and risk management, yet even large corporations can succumb to threats. Here are some real-world instances of data leaks that affected significant organizations or government bodies:

  • The Texas Department of Insurance encountered an ongoing data leak unnoticed until 2022. Potentially accessible information encompassed names, addresses, dates of birth, phone numbers, partial or full social security numbers, and details concerning injuries and workers’ compensation claims.
  • A misconfigured database at Pegasus Airlines exposed 23 million files containing personal data online. This database comprised flight charts, navigation materials, and information about the flight crew. The incident led to a considerable loss of customer confidence and regulatory fines.
  • The Veterans Administration lost 26.5 million records containing sensitive data, including social security numbers and dates of birth, when an employee took data home.
  • Idaho Power Company in Boise fell victim to a data leak after inadvertently selling used hard drives containing sensitive files and confidential information on eBay.
  • Loyola University disposed of hard drives containing sensitive student information without properly wiping them, resulting in the exposure of social security numbers and financial aid records.
  • A vendor’s laptop containing thousands of names, social security numbers, and credit card information was stolen from a car belonging to a contractor at the University of North Dakota.
  • An error in Texas University’s software allowed unauthorized users to access names, courses, and grades for 12,000 students.

How to Prevent Data Leaks

Operational issues, encompassing technical and human errors, are responsible for most data leaks. Preventing such leaks begins with a robust, multi-layered cybersecurity strategy and a commitment to data privacy. While security teams should establish a robust defense mechanism, they must also implement an incident response plan for swift recovery from cyberattacks.

Here are several strategies to prevent data leaks:

  • Conduct security assessments and audits: Ensure that your organization has the necessary protocols and policies in place to safeguard data, especially for regulatory compliance. Address any identified weaknesses promptly.
  • Limit data access: Grant employees access only to the data essential for their job functions to minimize risk.
  • Review and update data storage methods: Outdated data storage practices can expose vulnerabilities. Regularly assess the data you collect and how it’s stored.
  • Purge old data: Regularly sanitize data to mitigate the risk of leaks.
  • Provide cybersecurity training to employees: Educate employees on security awareness to empower them as an additional defense against breaches. Train them to recognize and report suspicious activities, particularly malicious emails.
  • Adopt a zero-trust security approach: Don’t automatically trust devices or accounts within your network. Implement stringent verification measures to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive data.
  • Implement multi-factor authentication: Enhance security beyond passwords alone by requiring multiple authentication factors.
  • Monitor third-party risks: Be vigilant against supply chain attacks, where a compromised third-party vendor’s account could lead to a widespread data breach.
  • Ensure proper off-boarding procedures: When employees leave, revoke their access to software, systems, and files promptly. Disable accounts and retrieve company equipment to prevent unauthorized access.


Data leaks, stemming from operational, technical, and human errors, pose significant risks to organizations and individuals. While breaches often dominate headlines, leaks are equally concerning, leading to identity theft, financial losses, and reputational harm. To mitigate these risks, organizations must adopt robust cybersecurity practices, conduct regular assessments, limit data access, provide thorough employee training, and stay vigilant against evolving threats. Through proactive prevention and response measures, organizations can protect sensitive data and maintain trust in an increasingly digital landscape.


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