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Steps to successfully manage a data breach

In today’s digital age, malicious actors are becoming bolder and wilier when it comes to stealing data. Simply putting safeguards in place isn’t enough anymore; the chances that your private data could be exploited are rising, and you need to have plans in place in the event of a data breach.

What is a data breach?

A data breach is a cyber-attack which results in the release of sensitive data. It usually involves a malicious actor gaining access to a system and exploiting its vulnerabilities to extract private data. The malicious actors extract information from the system through phishing – the process of acquiring sensitive information through deceptive tactics like sending email links from a seemingly trusted source – or by using malware such as keyloggers and spyware.

However, a data breach can also occur through the accidental release of data, like a company systems administrator accidentally uploading a file containing the company’s customer’s social security numbers onto a public server, rather than the secured server for employees only.

Data breaches hurt companies, and some never recover. Once the sensitive information is leaked to the public, they may lose customers or even be subjected to lawsuits.

Other harm caused by data breaches include:

  • Reputational damage
  • Identity fraud or theft
  • Financial loss
  • Employment or business opportunities lost
  • Disruption of company services
  • Spam emails
  • Legal implications

One of the largest data breaches in Australian history was suffered by tech unicorn Canva in May 2019. The company’s systems were breached, and up to 139 million users’ details including usernames, email addresses, and hashed passwords were stolen. The intruder was stopped mid-attack, but the high-profile company suffered a harsh blow to its reputation.

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Precautions to take in advance

Malicious data breaches result from cyber-attacks. Malicious actors gain unauthorised access to your data through methods like phishing, brute force attacks, and malware. Knowing how these attacks work is the first step in being able to prevent them.

  • Phishing: this deceptive attack is designed to fool the unwary. Malicious attackers pose as trusted individuals or organisations to coax you into handing over access to sensitive data, like sending an email with a link. Clicking on the link then gives the attacker access to your system.
  • Brute force: less sophisticated but determined attackers might use software tools to work through your password possibilities. If your password is weak, it can take only seconds to crack.
  • Malware: the invasion of computer systems by harmful software, like spyware, ransomware, Trojans, or worms. Malware exploit the vulnerabilities in your system and can disable your antivirus software, spy on keystrokes for passwords, and encrypt data.

You should always be wary of potential data breaches. Every person who interacts with your system is a vulnerability and must be aware of the risks to data.

Steps to avoid a data breach:

  • Assess and analyse the level of risk
  • Set security controls like firewalls, identity and access management, and security patch updates
  • Install anti-virus software
  • Establish a cybersecurity policy
  • Use high-grade encryption for sensitive data
  • Implement a password manager for all employees to use
  • Enable multi-factor authentication
  • Establish and test data breach response plans
  • Patch and upgrade software as soon as it’s available
  • Educate employees in social engineering attacks

Security is only as strong as its weakest link. By implementing strong cybersecurity protocols, you reduce your risk of becoming a victim of a data breach. However, no matter the strength of your preventative measures, assuming the worst will keep you ready in the case of a data breach incident.

Steps to take in the event of a data breach

Under the Notifiable Data Breach (NDB) scheme, any organisation or agency the Privacy Act 1988 covers must notify the affected individuals and the Office of the Australian Information Commissioner (OAIC) if it seems the data breach is likely to cause serious harm to individuals whose personal information is stolen or leaked.

On top of that, when a breach has occurred, it’s vital that you already have an incident response plan you can immediately set in motion to reduce the risk and minimise the harm to affected individuals – not just yourself, but your customers.

An incident response plan will enable you to quickly respond to a data breach notification and minimise the damage. The OAIC recommends four key steps:

  • Contain the data breach to prevent any further compromise of information
  • Assess the breach by gathering facts and evaluating the risks
  • Notify the individuals involved and the Commissioner if required
  • Review the incident and consider what actions to take to prevent future breaches

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Assemble a response team and ensure each individual is primed on their role and responsibilities in the event of a breach. Putting the team through their paces with a simulation breach test will cement their confidence and collaboration.

An ideal response team will consist of:

  • Team leader: leading the team and responding to management
  • Project manager: co-ordinating and supporting the team
  • Key privacy officer: privacy expertise
  • Legal support: identifying legal obligations
  • Risk management support: assessing the risks
  • Forensics support: establishing the cause and impact involving ICT systems
  • HR support: if the breach was due to an employee’s actions
  • Media/communications support: liaising with affected individuals and dealing with media announcements

The size and scope of your business will determine which roles you need and which you are unable to fill; the three most important are legal, data forensics, and media management. Some team members may take on more than one role, or you may need to outsource for others. Having a second point of contact for each role will allow for any unexpected absences.

How to recover following the event

Say that, despite all your efforts to the contrary, a breach has occurred, and malicious actors gained unauthorised access to your personal information and private data. Fortunately, with your incident response plan in readiness and your response team well-prepped for the incident, you have minimised the damage as much as you can.

The next phase is assessing the cause of the breach and taking steps to prevent it from happening again. This could mean anything from staff training to changing your antivirus software or implementing greater cybersecurity precautions.

Further, if you have been liaising with the media, it’s important to allay the alarm of the public to soften the damage your reputation has taken. Social media updates and public announcements can go far in reclaiming your customer’s trust.

Stay one step ahead with the right team

The potential of data breaches is ominous. The steps and plans you should implement before, during, and after the incident can be overwhelming. Consult the IT specialists at INTELLIWORX for a risk assessment, and start building your data breach preventative plans today.

Shane Maher

We passionately work on the IT Infrastructure of mid-tier businesses and support MSPs into cloud services. I have over 17 years of commercial experience that includes supporting and managing IT systems, developing infrastructure solutions, both onsite & in the cloud.

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