How to Respond in the Event of a Data Security Breach

Eugene Zaremba
Published 06/16/2023
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How to Respond in The Event of a Data Security BreachData security breach, three words guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of every employee, from C-suite executives to IT staff. A data security breach can turn into a costly incident, both in terms of financial loss and a possible loss of confidence in your organization.

Just what is a data security breach? What should you have in place to mitigate any damage and get your business back up and running as soon as possible?


What is a data security breach?

Free to use image sourced from Pexels

A data security breach is an incident where confidential and sensitive data is ‘leaked’ to people outside your organization. That data can cover everything from business-critical information to data about your customers, which itself could cover everything from personal information to health data. As well as the financial sector, the health sector is one where robust data protection is crucial.

A data security breach can happen because of malicious external attacks by cybercriminals or because of employee error. They can happen because of the following:

  • Malware attacks.
  • Deliberate data theft by employees.
  • Accidental leaks due to phishing or other social engineering tactics.
  • Opening emails that contain malware. Just because an email header says it contains a software proposal template doesn’t mean it does. Scan all attachments.
  • Data accessed using stolen credentials.
  • Exploitation of vulnerabilities in cloud-based apps.


8 steps to take in the event of a data security breach

So, you are alerted to a data security breach; what steps should you be ready to take?



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1. Isolation

The first thing to do is to identify which areas of your network are affected and immediately isolate them. That may involve taking the entire network offline to be safe, and you should also isolate any affected servers if possible. The next step is to change all the credentials on your main accounts and begin investigating what caused the data security breach. This latter step may have to be outsourced if you don’t have specialized IT staff.


2. Assess

Your next step should be to assess how much damage the data security breach has caused. What information has been compromised, and is any of it retrievable? Has any of the compromised data been backed up on external or cloud servers and is unaffected? Knowing how much damage has been done to you (and your customers) can help determine what to do next, as well as inform future cybersecurity measures.


3. Full investigation

Once your network and systems are secure, you want to start a more thorough investigation into what caused the data security breach. With the average cost of a breach being $4.35 million in 2022, you want to know what caused the breach and take steps to prevent it from happening again. Has the breach been due to cybercriminals mounting an attack on your network, or is it down to employee errors such as your IT team failing to update critical security systems or an employee opening a phishing email?


4. Report

Something you have to do quickly, depending on the type of data that has been compromised, is report the data security breach to relevant authorities. In fact, new laws in the US require some organizations to report breaches to federal authorities as well as regulatory ones. In the EU, the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) law requires that any breach is reported within 72 hours. Knowing when to report a breach, and who to, is an essential part of your response plan.


5. Consult

A data security breach is not usually something you can keep to yourself. This is particularly true when customers’ sensitive data has been stolen or leaked. You should consult with your legal team and your public relations staff as to how and when to announce the leak, as well as how you should notify any affected customers. That may involve personalized emails or calls as well as a well-structured press release.


6. Retrieval

Of course, you want any stolen data to be retrieved (or restored) if possible. Data recovery after a breach or other disaster can be crucial to the affected business. Efficient organizations that handle a lot of data will usually have it backed up on external or isolated servers, something that means you can be back operating normally once the source of the breach has been identified. Depending on the sensitivity of the data, you may also find that federal and law enforcement agencies may assist you in retrieving data.


7. Audit

Once the dust has settled and you are sure the data security breach is no longer causing damage, you will want to fully audit your current cybersecurity measures. It can be helpful to use an external auditor for this process as they will be more subjective in any analysis. You should also consider implementing refresher courses for all your employees explaining how to prevent any breach in the future, such as regularly changing passwords or being more aware of suspect email content.


8. Plan

If you don’t have a response plan in place, it’s time to make one in case of future breaches. You can learn valuable lessons from a breach and be more prepared if it happens again. If you don’t feel you can construct a plan internally, then it may be worth consulting with a specialist cybersecurity consultant or agency.


The takeaway

Many data security breaches, such as an employee accidentally opening an email with malware attached, are preventable. However, some breaches may not be stoppable as cybercriminals are looking to find and expose vulnerabilities as quickly as cybersecurity experts look to stop them. Ensuring you have the highest levels of protection available is the first step to being as secure as possible.

Staff errors can be one of the most common data breaches, and many of these errors are understandable. It can be tempting, in the middle of a busy day, to spot an attached software development contract template and open it without thinking. But checking the sender and scanning any attachment takes only a minute or two and can help prevent a major data security breach.


Disclaimer: The author is completely responsible for the content of this article. The opinions expressed are their own and do not represent IEEE’s position nor that of the Computer Society nor its Leadership.