How To Detect A Cyber Security Breach

Data Breach

A data breach is the deliberate or unintentional disclosure of personal data to an unauthorized person or setting. A data breach can be either one or a few records or a mega breach, including over 1 million records.

Data breaches happen because of financial or political influences. Or it can be caused by thrill-seekers testing the limits of their evil hacking expertise. Human error, lax security best practices, and unpatched system vulnerabilities are its main causes. Both internal and external actors have the potential to trigger them.

Types Of Data Breaches

Data breaches typically aim for PII (Personally Identifiable Information) or non-PII information.

PII data breach includes:

  • Names.
  • Date of birth.
  • Contact information and addresses.
  • Passwords and security questions.
  • Financial data.
  • Social security numbers.
  • Personal health information.
  • Insurance information.
  • Driver license information, etc.

Non-PII data breach targets:

  • Proprietary source code.
  • Internal business includes trade secrets, business relationships, plans, or budgets.
  • Classified government documents or communications.
  • Infrastructure data, such as building, device, or defense blueprints.

Data Breach Targets

No organization is safe from a breach. Financial institutions are among the largest worldwide corporations and have significantly invested in cybersecurity. Nonetheless, they are quite vulnerable because of the importance of their internal sensitive data.

Individual targets are more vulnerable than ever due to the abundance of sensitive personal data available online, whether PII is sold on the dark web or public data on a personal social network account. All organizations are vulnerable, with small organizations responsible for 43% of breaches in 2019. Globally, the most targeted industries for security breaches include:

  1. Financial and insurance institutes.
  2. Healthcare.
  3. Government.
  4. Retail.
  5. Media and entertainment.
  6. Transportation.
  7. Educational institutions.
  8. Manufacturing.
  9. Professional services.
  10. Energy.

How Do Data Breaches Occur?

How can an attacker take over a target’s data after locating it? The potential of cybersecurity teams to anticipate, recognize, and respond to data leaks and other security breaches reflects their ability to answer this question.

The “cyber kill chain” refers to the sequence of actions taken by an attacker during a data breach. Threat actors continuously develop new strategies; therefore, this process constantly changes. The ability of a business to prevent data breaches is considerably enhanced by gathering all available threat intelligence at each stage of the cyber kill chain. The following are the steps in the cyber kill chain:

  • Target and analyze.
  • Devise tools and strategies.
  • Execute attack.
  • Exploit or breach.
  • Command and control.
  • Accomplish goals.

How Attackers Exploit Breached Data?

After data breaches, attackers can use stolen private data and other confidential information in various ways. The most prevalent objective is to monetize sensitive data; nevertheless, some opponents have political motivations or employ stolen data in harassment and hacktivism campaigns. Here are a few examples of breached data misuse:

Identity Theft And Financial Crimes

Data breaches that come under identity theft and financial crime involve:

  • Making fake financial documents, cards, etc.
  • Stealing money out of a person’s account.
  • Bank drops and fake accounts.
  • Healthcare fraud for purchasing drugs, etc.
  • Tax evasion to steal the tax return of a taxpayer.

Credentials Stuffing

Some attackers test breached lists of user login credentials (emails, usernames, and passwords) against login pages for other websites and applications. This credential stuffing technique by malicious hackers allows them to access mega-breaches and compromise additional accounts.

Dark Web Marketplaces

Attackers sell breached data on the dark web if they do not intend to keep it to themselves. There is a multitude of dark web markets selling records of data breaches. These marketplaces frequently change as they are launched or taken offline by law enforcement or distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks. Many dark web merchants also promote their stores via deep web resources.

Social Engineering

The attacker can employ social engineering techniques to use any data compromised during the initial attack. Account passwords aren’t always given away in data breaches, and an attacker only needs a small amount of personal information to gain access to more valuable data.

SIM Jacking

SIM jacking or SIM swap fraud is a type of social engineering that targets a person’s mobile phone. In short, the attacker contacts the person’s phone service provider using stolen personal information. Then, they use that data to pretend to be that person to request a SIM switch for a card in the attacker’s possession.

Doxxing And Hacktivism

Doxxing is a kind of online harassment. These cyber attacks are typically focused on invading a specific individual’s data, making a person’s confidential information records available to the public. Doxxing is frequently used as a hacktivism type against prominent people like business leaders or politicians. Doxxes are frequently carried out as retaliation against someone thought to have committed crimes like child exploitation.

Politically motivated people or groups commit hacktivist data breaches. These are frequently associated with human rights campaigns, freedom of expression, and information issues. Hacktivist groups frequently utilize doxxing and breaches of private emails or documents to promote their goals.

State-Sponsored Cyber-attacks

Nation-states and related actors have been involved in an increasing number of breaches since 2017, according to Verizon’s Data Breach Investigations Report (2019). These groups were responsible for 23% of breaches in 2019, and a quarter of the breaches examined in the research had a cyberespionage component. This pattern suggests that targets and threats for data breaches are evolving. Government entities are increasingly targeted by nation-backed threat actors looking to access political, military, technological, or other benefits.

International Crime And Illegal Immigration

Personal identifiable information breaches enable individuals to cross borders illegally. Data breaches can make it easier for stolen personal documents, such as passports, fake identities, and work licenses, to be distributed. These are mostly marketed to migrants and people looking to settle illegally on the dark web. Identity theft rarely results in terrorism, espionage, or both abroad.

Cyber Security Data Breach Detection

The time it takes to discover a data breach—its lifecycle—is crucial. According to IBM’s 2019 Cost of a Data Breach Report, it takes businesses an average of 206 days to identify an attack and 73 days to contain it. Data compromised by an organization could therefore be exposed for more than 9 months.

Longer detection time frames impact the security of those falling victim and any financial and reputational harm the company may sustain. The same IBM analysis states that breaches with longer than 200 days cost 37% more than breaches with less than 200 days.

Cyber Security Data Breach Detection Steps

There are several steps to identify a cyber security incident. These include:

Determine The Data Breach

Finding the data breach is the first step in a data breach detection investigation. According to NIST specifications, the identification stage consists of two components and determines whether a data breach has occurred. These two elements—leads and indicators—indicate two distinct data breaches.

The web server logs that reflect security breaches in your company’s network, a security breach that impacts the entire network security and warning signs from a cyber attacker group are regarded as leads. Leads are uncommon for businesses and enterprises to encounter, but taking preventative measures is simple when they do.

A breach that has occurred or is currently ongoing is regarded as an indicator. For instance, emails with ambiguous contents that are returned, cache overflows against database servers, login attempts from unidentified networks, etc.

Avoid Changes

Avoid changing anything on the suspected systems because doing so can tamper with the evidence or worsen the issue. It means that you should delay activities that will significantly influence the system.

Depending on the occurrence’s seriousness, the attacker’s motive and consequences, and your company’s goals, you might have to make a trade-off.

For instance, in case of a consistent outflow of your intellectual property, you should prioritize to first halt this stream at the risk of tampering with the evidence. Using action matrix courses might help you decide which course of action is the best to apply.

Practice Emergency Case Intervention

When you detect a breach, adopt a few safeguards essentially:

  1. Record the date and time you detect a breach.
  2. The person who discovered the data breach must immediately notify the internal accountable parties.
  3. Set an access restriction to stop the spread of compromised sensitive data.

The emergency case intervention preventative measures include performing a risk assessment, engaging with the people who identified the data breach, and gathering all available data surrounding the breach.

Collect Evidence

It is essential to act immediately to gather proof of the data breach. Interview the people who discovered the significant data breach, verify cybersecurity tools, and analyze the data transfer in your servers and network devices to gather evidence. The evidence includes:

  • Network flows.
  • Log files.
  • Malware samples.
  • Malicious links.
  • Unusual network ports.
  • Memory and disk information.
  • Running system processes list.
  • Active network connections.
  • Logged-in users.

Assess The Data Breach

Examine the data breach after compiling the evidence. The fundamental elements of the analysis phase include the following:

  • Suspicious activity.
  • Privileged data access.
  • Threat duration.
  • Unexpected software and individuals involved in the breach.
  • Breach type (internal and external cyber threats).

Exercise Precautions For Restriction, Destruction, And Recovery

The restriction is essential to avoid evidence destruction utilized in the investigation and the destruction of compromised servers. Destruction is destroying all the things that lead to a breach. Recovery means restoring the compromised servers to their original states.

Inform The Stakeholders

Regardless of the legal responsibility, it is best to inform all data breach-impacted parties and law enforcement. The stakeholders include:

  • Employees.
  • Clients.
  • Investors.
  • Business partners.
  • Regulatory bodies, etc.

High-level analysis of the cyber attack may be included in the reporting, including:

  • If it was a targeted breach.
  • Whether it has already been noticed.
  • If other security professionals have noticed a similar cyber attack.
  • What harm has it already caused?
  • What harm might it inflict later?
  • The attack’s purpose.

Prioritize Post-Breach Operations

After implementing the necessary data breach prevention operations, you must thoroughly study the breach and its effects to draw conclusions that will help avoid future attacks of the same kind. It could be helpful to evaluate your cybersecurity network to generate these insights thoroughly.

Tools And Sources For Breach Detection

Tools for breach detection or intrusion detection tools are crucial to an organization’s cybersecurity because of the costs and timelines involved. These tools enable security teams to identify infrastructure weaknesses or suspicious activities early. They are either software or hardware products that can aid in locating dangers within your network, identify current risks, and notify the security analysts that they must act. You can configure these tools, for instance, to watch the network and give warning signs if they detect:

  • Uncertain user behavior.
  • Weakness in the network.
  • Applications and programs may present risks.

These breach detection tools concentrate on post-intrusion detection, containment, management of the breach, and mitigating damages. The market offers a wide range of commercial packages and open-source solutions.

However, as adversary tactics and techniques evolve, it is frequently impossible to discover a breach until the compromised material has leaked. It frequently does so in hidden and unindexed web areas. Here, data-finding solutions support effective breach detection. There are three typical sources for breach detection:

Breached Data Repositories

These repositories are freely accessible databases that compile over 10 billion stolen records from reported data breaches. They constantly change as fresh breach occurrences are uncovered on the dark web and in other secret sources.

Dark Web Marketplaces And Forums

These websites give users complete anonymity, making them a trove of stolen data. Dark web marketplaces often provide information about the source of the data and a preview of the material being provided. Dark web forums sometimes behave more like paste sites, with individuals uploading lists of leaked data.

Paste Sites

These are used for exchanging plain text blocks anonymously and publicly on the deep and dark web. Using malicious paste sites exposes compromised data. Doxxing and credential lists are two common forms of these breaches.

To quickly identify breaches and cut the data breach lifecycle length, searching these sources for things particular to an organization—such as email handles—is quite beneficial. But this requires specialized search software to explore these sites for pertinent data successfully is a very time-consuming and laborious procedure because they are not indexed. Dark Web networks are notoriously sluggish and can put businesses at risk if used incorrectly. Various platforms scrape and index these sources to help enterprises uncover warning signs of data breaches and decrease response times.

Data Breach Consequences

The effects of data breaches on their victims are severe. A single breach costs the US $8.19 million, according to IBM and Ponemon Institute 2019 Cost of a Data Breach Report. Given that the typical breach size is just 25,575 records, these expenditures may rise quickly if the business has a mega-breach involving over a million records.

A lack of consumer, employee, and stakeholder trust is even more harmful in the long run than financial loss following a data breach. Irrespective of how many records were breached, a brand’s future success will primarily depend on how it handles the issue and its relationships with those impacted. A single breach can cost a business significantly in terms of money and reputation. Post-security breach organizations need to:

  • Detect actions, assess the breach, and quickly report it.
  • Breach response and containment (security precautions and staff training).
  • Notify breach victims.
  • Bring in new clients to cover the loss of loyal customers and income.
  • Incur regulatory fines (GDPR).
  • A service disruption.


The range of tactics and approaches that adversaries are inventing to exploit data puts pressure on organizations of all sizes and sectors to keep up with the rising risk. Although breaches are unavoidable, the sooner organizations can identify cyber attacks, the more they may do to minimize the costs and effects of breaches.

A business’s security and breach mitigation toolset must now include web monitoring software. These technologies assist businesses in quickly finding breach signs when they first arise on underground web networks, enabling them to take quicker action and limit losses. This proactive approach fosters long-term success for companies by maintaining the confidence of stakeholders, including customers, employees, and the public.

Derik Belair

As President and CEO, Derik leads the vision, strategy and growth of Augmentt. Prior to founding Augmentt, Derik was the Vice President at SolarWinds, leading the digital marketing strategy for SolarWinds’ Cloud division. Derik has been working in the channel for over 20 years, starting his career as a channel sales rep at Corel Corp. and eventually becoming the first employee at N-able Technologies in April of 2000.
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