What Are the Most Common Reasons for Data Breach?

Every business owner is concerned about or should be concerned about, the possibility of a data breach. Overnight, your company could lose millions of dollars, ruin its reputation, and jeopardize the identities of its customers. You might be able to clean up the mess with a few million dollars and a few months of heavy lifting if you’re lucky. If you’re unlucky, it could destroy your business and even land you in legal trouble.

Fortunately, most data breaches are simple to avoid.

A data breach is simply the common name for a specific type of security breach in which private or confidential data is stolen, copied, or viewed by an unauthorized party. In other words, the information you’re attempting to keep private ends up in the hands of someone else.

As you can see, there are numerous scenarios in which a data breach can occur, as well as numerous root causes that can eventually result in a data breach. While most people associate data breaches with genius-level cybercriminals and billion-dollar hacking operations, the truth is that the vast majority of data breaches are exploitative in nature and perpetrated by amateurs.

That means that even the most basic strategies should be sufficient to protect you from the vast majority of data breach threats.

Let’s take a look at the most common threats and leading causes of data breaches around the world.

Weak and Stolen Passwords

If you’re not in IT, you probably don’t think much about your password, but it’s the foundation of any security strategy. If your password is simple to guess, someone with no technical knowledge could guess it and gain unauthorized access to your systems. A simple algorithm may be able to crack your password if it is short or contains easily identifiable patterns (such as “1234”). If you use the same password across multiple platforms, including a mix of personal and professional systems, a single breach could expose every system in that network.

Choose a long string of characters for your password that includes a variety of numbers, symbols, uppercase letters, and lowercase letters, with no predictable patterns or words. You should also use a different password for each application, and never give your password to anyone – even perceived authorities. You should also educate every employee in your establishment on how to use these same password habits, as even one weak link can result in did he preach.

Application and Third-Party Vulnerabilities

Some data breaches occur as a result of an outsider gaining access to a system via some kind of “backdoor.” A clever enough hacker may be able to figure out an indirect way to access a data table or a workaround that can grant an unauthorized user system access.

Here are the usual suspects:

  • Out-of-date software. When software developers discover a backdoor or a security vulnerability in their software, they usually create and distribute a patch as soon as possible, alerting the rest of the world to the possibility. If you do not download the patch, the vulnerability will remain – and a slew of malicious cybercriminals will be waiting to exploit it. Even outdated plugins in your website builder could pose a threat large enough to bring your entire website down. The solution is to always keep everything up to date.
  • Coding error. Security vulnerabilities may be a concern if the application is poorly coded or if the developers do not care enough to issue regular patches. That is why it is critical to only work with reputable industry authorities who have experience and a track record of accountability.
  • Inadequate configuration. Security flaws can emerge as a result of poor configuration or user error during setup and integration. These high-level systems must be set up by a professional.


If even one device on your network is infected with malware, the malware could spread to your other devices and give an unauthorized user access to your most sensitive data. Malware comes in many forms, but they all require an opportunity to be installed.

There are numerous ways for a user to be tricked into downloading and installing this type of software, often without even realizing it. For example, you could be duped into downloading an attachment from an email that appears to be from an authority figure. You could try plugging in a flash drive you found in the parking lot to see what’s on it. You could also connect the device to a public network, granting access to those around you indirectly.

Anti-malware software can help to mitigate some of these threats as well as identify and remove malware once it has been installed. However, it is still critical to train your employees to recognize malware threats and the best ways to prevent them. It only takes a few best practices to reduce the threat to a manageable level.

Social Engineering

It’s easy to dismiss the possibility of social engineering; who would fall for such a transparent ruse? However, social engineers are very good at what they do, and most people are naturally trusting. If someone in a high visibility vest with a clipboard starts asking you questions, you’re going to start answering them. Furthermore, if someone claims to be an engineer from a tech company you use, one of your employees may entrust them with sensitive information.

Because social engineering manifests itself in so many different ways, there is no comprehensive strategy for preventing it from occurring. You cannot, however, educate and train your employees to be on the lookout for this type of scam.

Vindictive (or Greedy) Insiders

Most business owners believe that data breaches occur from the outside; that some nefarious third party in Russia or some kid across the country with a vendetta is attempting to break-in. However, data breach threats can also come from within an organization. When you think about it, it makes sense; insiders already have unprecedented access to your data, and they can easily abuse that access.

Insider threats can take many forms, including:

  • Employees who are dissatisfied and want to retaliate against a company that they believe has wronged them.
  • Parties who were willfully ignorant and did not pay attention in data breach prevention class.
  • Corporate espionage/colluding parties who are collaborating with other businesses to sabotage this brand.
  • Income seekers who want to supplement their income by stealing and selling data.

Poor Permission Management

Do all of your users require constant access to all of your data? The answer is unequivocal “no.” Limiting data access and permissions to only those who require that information is a good security practice. Poor permissions management can allow low-level employees to gain access to confidential and privileged data that they should not have access to.

Physical Threats

Data security appears to be confined to the digital realm – but this isn’t always the case. Data breaches can occur as a result of a physical threat or incident. If a person leaves their device unattended in a coffee shop, someone can easily steal it and use the information on the screen. If someone enters their password in plain sight of another person, the spying party may gain immediate access to one of your systems. That is why it is critical for your organization to have physical security protocols in place.

Fortunately, most of these data breach threats can be avoided with a few low-cost, easy-to-implement strategies. Having said that, it’s also critical to have a data breach response plan in place. Ensure that you have early detection systems in place to alert you to unauthorized user access, suspicious activity, and active threats. It’s also critical to have a plan in place for dealing with a threat once it’s been identified.

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John Harper

#1 File Information bestselling author John Harper loves to dispel the myth that smart men & women don’t read (or write) romance, and if you watch reruns of the game show The Weakest Link you might just catch him winning the $77,000 jackpot. In 2021, Netflix will premiere Bridgerton, based on his popular series of novels about the Why Files.

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