What is data exfiltration?

Security challenges

Today, most companies understand that their data is their most valuable asset. The challenge is that even the most proactive companies cannot secure all of their data efficiently and securely. Many data leaks result from careless habits that lead to data theft or data exfiltration.

In simple terms, data exfiltration occurs when a company's data is deliberately compromised. This article explains how exfiltration works and what you can do to protect your business.

What is data exfiltration? 

Data exfiltration (also referred to as data leakage) is the unauthorized or negligent transfer of data. Cybercriminals employ data exfiltration as a method of locating, copying, and transferring sensitive information. 

While there are many ways for cybercriminals to target your data, three common ways that data exfiltration occurs are through outside targeted attacks, intentional insider attacks, and unintentional employee errors. 

Data can also be exfiltrated by insiders from within your business. This could be malicious in nature, or non-malicious (albeit reckless) behavior.

Data exfiltration methods

The consequences of data exfiltration are far-reaching. A data breach has the potential to not only ruin a company's hard-earned reputation but also negatively impact the lives of its customers. Most companies understand this reality and dedicate resources to address the threat, yet data exfiltration continues to happen at an alarming rate.

Data exfiltration involves various attack tactics, making it difficult to stop without proper Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tools. Three common ways that data exfiltration takes place are via:

  1. External cybercriminals: This method gets the most headlines and attention. It is usually conducted through phishing or hacking techniques to gain login credentials; the hackers can then exfiltrate sensitive data from an application or further emails. After that, they’ll seek to blackmail the company or sell the data on the dark web.

  2. Malicious insider exfiltration: Unfortunately, some cybercriminals also have day jobs, and they may already be inside your organization. The insider threat is real, and it can involve a disgruntled employee gathering data to sell to criminals or a competitor for profit, or simply to cause harm.

  3. Non-malicious exfiltration: Let's face it, people can be reckless. Even though they may not mean to cause harm, employees exfiltrate data every day in order to make their own lives easier. Whether that’s emailing data to a personal email address, bypassing cumbersome security protocols, or taking files to a new job – these are all still data breaches.

Risks associated with data exfiltration 

Data exfiltration is a substantial corporate risk, ranging from significant financial loss to regulatory compliance violations to sensitive asset leaks. Data exfiltration risks range from compromised personally identifiable information (PII) and personal health information (PHI) to stolen intellectual property and payment card information. 

An attacker's primary motivation for stealing sensitive data from a company is usually financial. Typical targets include financial records, customer information, and intellectual property. 

They are compensated by either ransoming the data back to the organization or selling it to malevolent Dark Web buyers.

Three common risks associated with data exfiltration include:

  1. Stolen IP: Preventing intellectual property theft isn't easy.  Especially when annual costs of IP losses in the United States vary from $225 billion to $600 billion. The concerning part for organizations that rely on traditional external DLP tools is that, more often than not, they are ineffective when it comes to detecting internal threats.
  2. Data breaches of personal information: Data exfiltration can involve the theft of many types of information, including personal data about your customers, clients, or employees. 
  3. Regulatory fines: Significant penalties can be issued for data breaches. Regulators showed some leniency throughout the pandemic, but are likely to become more severe about companies that do not adequately protect consumer data.

The bottom line is that data exfiltration prevention is critical because consumers will lose confidence in your business if they believe their data is not protected. Dedicated cybercriminals combined with inadvertent and negligent insider breaches ensure that data exfiltration will remain a serious threat for the foreseeable future.

Why and how might someone exfiltrate your information? 

Data exfiltration can be challenging to detect because it involves monitoring data moving within and outside a company's network. Specifically, it's difficult to distinguish malicious movement from typical network traffic. Moreover, the techniques cybercriminals use to steal data are becoming increasingly sophisticated, which helps them avoid detection. 

Entry points for examples of data exfiltration incidents: 

  • Malicious insider threats: This could include selling data to competitors or cybercriminals, or trying to damage a company as revenge. It's more common than you may think.
  • Intentional but well-meaning insider: This could include breaking security protocol to make life easier. Business leaders and cybersecurity professionals remain worried about data breaches because even if their organization has a robust cybersecurity program, it only takes one malicious email, one accidental click, for data to be compromised. 
  • Employee negligence: With or without malicious intent, employees have many bad cybersecurity habits, including clicking on unknown links and downloading proprietary information, to only list a few. These behaviours, if left unchecked, can lead to data exfiltration via phishing.

How to stop intentional exfiltration

Preventing data exfiltration requires organizations to integrate effective Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions with a proactive cybersecurity awareness program. For example, data loss prevention software enabling data-in-motion protection allows organizations to track and monitor data throughout the protected network in real-time. 

Happy with the basics? Follow up with our five top tips on how to prevent data exfiltration.

FAQs

What is data exfiltration? 

Data exfiltration (also referred to as data leakage) is the unauthorized or negligent transfer of data. Cybercriminals employ data exfiltration as a method of locating, copying, and transferring sensitive information.

Is data exfiltration an attack? 

Data exfiltration conducted maliciously is most certainly a cyber-attack. Hacking, malware, and social engineering techniques are among the strategies used by cybercriminals. Additionally, employee negligence or failure to follow cybersecurity guidelines creates critical vulnerabilities for cybercriminals to attack.

How do you stop data exfiltration? 

Preventing data exfiltration requires organizations to integrate effective Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions with a proactive cybersecurity awareness program. For example, combining data loss prevention software with continuous monitoring of suspicious activities stops data exfiltration effectively.