Data Loss versus Data Leak: What's the Difference?

Date: 5 July 2023

Although the cybersecurity industry evolves in expertise, takes proactive measures, and employs advanced tools to detect and address cyber threats effectively, cybercriminals continue to evolve and thrive.

Data across all sectors and industries, private and public, is in danger. Highly-skilled bad actors, but also negligent and malicious insiders, threaten data at any opportunity, and all too often, they succeed. Their purpose is multilayered: to disorder, disrupt, and demand ransom from their victims.

Verizon’s 2023 data breach report highlights that cybercriminals smell the money scent of the data. Nearly all incidents have a financial motivation, while, surprisingly, one out of five incidents are caused by insiders, deliberately or not, and involve stolen credentials.

Data, like humans, is one of the most critical assets for a business; thus, its protection must be of the utmost concern.

As the human factor is unpredictable and cyberattacks are becoming more sophisticated and intensified, data may leak from the safety of a business’s harbour to the open ocean and be lost. Maintaining data integrity and control requires solid cybersecurity policies, tools, and processes.

Data leak and data loss, two different states of data compromise, have the same catastrophic results on any organisation’s reputation and revenue. They are two of the most common cybersecurity issues businesses must deal with. While they may sound similar, significant differences between the two must be understood to protect sensitive information.

What is Data Loss?

Data loss occurs when information is destroyed, becomes inaccessible, or is irrevocably lost. Data loss can have serious consequences, including financial losses, loss of reputation, and legal repercussions. If a company loses sensitive customer data, it may face lawsuits and regulatory fines.

Apart from cyber incidents, like ransomware attacks, where data is locked down by cybercriminals and exchanged for money or lost forever, other common reasons that may cause a data loss are:

  • Accidental deletion
  • Hardware failure
  • Intentional sabotage from malicious insiders
  • Power outage
  • Environmental disruption

Preventing data loss requires a multi-pronged approach. Organisations should have proper procedures to backup data offline or in the cloud and redundant systems to ensure that data can be recovered in the event of a disaster.

Companies should also ensure adequate security measures and policies to prevent cyber attacks, such as firewalls, antivirus software, Zero Trust Approach (ZTA) policies, and intrusion detection systems.

Furthermore, all personnel should be given cybersecurity training to become aware of the best practices for data protection, such as using strong passwords and multi-factor authentication (MFA), but also about cybercriminals techniques, like phishing, vishing, and smishing.

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What is a Data Leak?

A data leak, on the other hand, occurs when data is intentionally or unintentionally released to unauthorised parties. Particularly in the age of highly distributed hybrid work, the definition of the concept of data leakage is a little more challenging than that of data loss.

It describes a situation where information has left an organisation and has been obtained by an unauthorised person. This can happen due to human error, such as sending an email to the wrong recipient or failing to secure a document properly. Data leaks can also occur as a result of:

  • Phishing (and all –ishing) methods
  • Inadequately secured networks
  • Social engineering
  • Malicious or negligent insiders
  • Lost devices packed with data

Data leaks, like data losses, can also have severe consequences. For example, if a healthcare provider accidentally leaks patient information, it may face legal fines and lawsuits for violating GDPR and HIPAA regulations.

Preventing data leaks requires a combination of technical and procedural measures. Organisations should implement access controls to ensure that only authorised personnel can access sensitive data and introduce the usage of advanced data loss prevention (DLP) tools. This may involve using encryption or multi-factor authentication.

Companies should also establish policies and procedures for handling sensitive data, such as requiring employees to sign confidentiality agreements and conducting regular security audits.

Employees should be trained adequately on handling sensitive information appropriately, such as not sharing passwords or leaving documents unattended. 

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Prevention is Vital

Data loss prevention and data leak prevention differ in their scope. The first deals with what data must be protected, while the latter deals with how this will be done. Data loss prevention, network, endpoint, or cloud, encompasses protection, detection, reaction, and data recovery, coupled with incident response and management, business continuity, and contingency plans.

On the other hand, data leak prevention is more concerned with regulating data flow both inside and outside a business’s perimeter. Data flow maps bundled with data governance, compliance, policy enforcement, and risk management focus on unauthorised data usage and exploitation.

As data is critical, it all comes to adequate data security. An organisation can’t protect its data without knowing where it is stored, used, and moved. No matter what it is called, data loss and data leaks can seriously jeopardize the integrity of any business.

To that end, the two DLP categories must work together hand by hand to achieve optimum results. An effective data security plan must include a robust, proactive cybersecurity plan but also a rigid, reactive approach in case of a cyber incident.

Cybersecurity is today a mature and fertile soil for data security to bloom. What needs to be done is to teach people how to eliminate the cyber weeds through proper data security cultivation techniques.

About the Author: Christos Flessas is a Communications and Information Systems Engineer with more than 30 years of experience as an Officer of the Hellenic Air Force (HAF). He is an accredited NATO tactical evaluator in the Communication and Information Systems (CIS) area and the National Representative (NatRep) at Signal Intelligence CIS and at Navigation Warfare (NavWar) Working Groups. Christos is intrigued by new challenges, open minded, and excited for exploring the impact of cybersecurity on industrial, critical infrastructure, telecommunications, financial, aviation, and maritime sectors. Christos is also a writer for Bora.


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