General security

Understanding cybersecurity breaches: Types, common causes and potential risks

Infosec Institute
August 22, 2023 by
Infosec Institute

Cybersecurity breaches are a fact of modern life. They have the potential to significantly harm individuals, businesses, organizations and governments. Networks of cybercriminals and other malicious actors continue to exploit vulnerabilities, leading to security breaches. You can strengthen and protect your organization's defenses by learning the causes of data breaches and what they entail.

It’s important to start with the basics to understand this multifaceted topic: the types of cybersecurity breaches, their underlying causes and the potential risks. It’s also essential to stay informed and learn from security breaches in the news.

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Cybersecurity breaches: An overview

A cybersecurity breach is one or more steps beyond a cyber incident. While the latter involves compromised networks or information, a breach is confirmed data disclosure to an unauthorized third party. It is the access, manipulation or theft of sensitive information or assets from computer systems, networks or applications.

These breaches encompass various cyber threats, each with unique risks and implications. Let's look at common security breaches, their causes and the associated business risks.

Types of cybersecurity breaches and threats

Data breaches

Data breaches are exactly what’s in the name: data exposure. A security breach involves unauthorized access to sensitive information, such as personal data, financial records or intellectual property. Cybercriminals target vulnerable databases and systems, which compromises data privacy and makes potential identity theft possible. Data breaches can also be accidental, such as uploading sensitive documents to the cloud without proper protection.

Ransomware attacks

Ransomware is a form of malware that encrypts a victim’s files, making them inaccessible without access to the decryption key. The attacker then demands a ransom payment for access to that key. Ransomware attacks can have devastating consequences for individuals and businesses, leading to significant data loss, financial losses and reputational damage. These attacks can paralyze businesses, disrupt critical services and lead to significant financial losses.

Phishing and social engineering

Phishing attacks use deceptive tactics to trick people into unknowingly divulging sensitive information, such as passwords or credit card details, or clicking on malicious links and files, which can lead to the installation of malware. Social engineering techniques manipulate people into granting unauthorized access or revealing confidential data.

Denial-of-service and distributed denial-of-service attacks

Denial-of-service (DoS) and distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks overload targeted systems with excessive traffic, rendering them inaccessible to legitimate users. These attacks disrupt online services for various reasons, including taking those services offline, extortion attempts and diversions for other malicious activities.

Advanced persistent threats 

Advanced persistent threats (APTs) are highly sophisticated and persistent attacks, often conducted by well-funded cybercriminals or nation-states. They aim to infiltrate and control networks for prolonged periods, covertly stealing sensitive information or conducting espionage.

Common causes of security breaches

Human error

According to the most recent Verizon Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR), 74% of all breaches involve the human element. This includes employees falling victim to phishing attempts, having their credentials stolen, mishandling sensitive data or providing other opportunities for attackers to breach security.

Weak passwords

Poor password management, including weak or easily guessable passwords, allows attackers to breach systems. This includes password re-use. Cybercriminals gather lists of known credentials from previous data breaches and may use tools to attempt to re-use those credentials across other web applications. 

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Software vulnerabilities

Software vulnerabilities are the number three cause of data breaches, behind stolen credentials and phishing, according to the DBIR. Cybercriminals exploit security vulnerabilities in software, applications or operating systems to gain unauthorized access, leading to unauthorized access to data or data exfiltration.

Lack of security updates

Regularly installing updates is a best practice to defend against data breaches. Once the security issue is public, it’s often a race between malicious actors trying to exploit those known vulnerabilities and organizations trying to patch them. Failing to apply regular security patches and updates exposes systems to these known vulnerabilities.

The business risks of cybersecurity breaches

  • Financial losses: Cybersecurity breaches can lead to substantial financial losses, including legal fees, incident response, data recovery and compensation to affected parties.
  • Reputational damage: Publicized breaches can damage an organization's reputation, eroding customer trust and loyalty.
  • Legal and regulatory consequences: Breached entities may face legal and regulatory consequences, especially if they fail to comply with data protection laws and regulations.
  • Operational disruptions: Cyberattacks may disrupt critical services, affecting business operations and causing economic losses.
  • Data theft and privacy violations: Breaches can lead to the theft of personal information, leading to identity theft and privacy violations.
  • Intellectual property theft: Attacks targeting intellectual property can result in stolen trade secrets or proprietary information, damaging a company's competitive edge.

Security breaches in the news

The impact of cybersecurity breaches is significant, both in terms of financial losses and reputational damage. Recent news stories highlight the severity of these attacks, with high-profile breaches affecting businesses like Equifax, Capital One and Twitter over the past few years.

Equifax data breach (2017)

The Equifax breach exposed the personal information of over 147 million people, including Social Security numbers and financial data. An unpatched version of the software was running on a server, and a hacker discovered and exploited it in one of the most catastrophic cybersecurity attacks.

WannaCry ransomware attack (2017)

The WannaCry attack infected hundreds of thousands of computers globally, encrypting files and demanding ransom payments for decryption. The attack exploited a vulnerability in Microsoft Windows operating systems, particularly Windows XP and Windows 7, for which Microsoft had released a security patch in March 2017. However, many had not applied the patch, leaving their systems vulnerable to the attack.

Capital One credit card breach (2019)

The Capital One breach was a significant data security incident in July 2019 that affected millions in the United States and Canada. The breach exposed sensitive information of both Capital One credit card customers and individuals who had applied for credit card products. A previous cloud computing company employee exploited a misconfigured web application firewall (WAF) on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud infrastructure, which allowed her to gain unauthorized access to Capital One's systems.

Twitter data breach (2020)

In a social engineering attack, hackers gained control of Twitter accounts, including those of celebrities and politicians, to promote a Bitcoin scam. In this case, the attackers used social engineering tactics to access internal Twitter systems and compromise high-profile Twitter accounts.

Western Digital cloud breach (2023)

The Western Digital cloud breach included an alleged 10 terabytes of stolen data and an 8-figure ransom demand. The theft from the digital storage company included customer names, billing and shipping addresses, email addresses and telephone numbers.

How to defend against data breaches

Cybersecurity breaches are not going away, but understanding the key types of cyber threats, how they happen, and their impact is the first step to building an effective defense. A combination of proactive and reactive tools — from fostering a security-conscious culture through cybersecurity awareness training to building an effective security operations center to ongoing penetration tests against your organization — all work towards reducing your organization's risk of a breach.

Infosec Institute
Infosec Institute

Infosec’s mission is to put people at the center of cybersecurity. We help IT and security professionals advance their careers with skills development and certifications while empowering all employees with security awareness and phishing training to stay cyber safe at work and home. More than 70% of the Fortune 500 have relied on Infosec Skills to develop their security talent, and more than 5 million learners worldwide are more cyber-resilient from Infosec IQ’s security awareness training.