The digital landscape is full of challenges as an increasing number of companies grapple with data exfiltration off corporate networks and devices. In this world where hackers ceaselessly prowl the vast internet, vigilance is not an option but a necessity. We all remember the jaw-dropping moment in January 2020 when an astounding 250 million Microsoft records were laid bare on the internet. To compound the crisis, over 300 million Facebook IDs and phone numbers found their way into the wrong hands soon after. The news reels spun with a dizzying frequency of devastating data security breach stories, and it is little wonder why. In the scant time it would take for you to peruse this article, malicious cyber criminals will have successfully executed 250 attacks.

The term 'data exfiltration' may seem like an alien concept to some, but for the majority of businesses operating in the digital sphere, it's an all-too-familiar and unwanted reality. In simple terms, data exfiltration is the unauthorized transfer of data from a computer. It's the successful end goal of most cyber attacks, where the hackers walk away with invaluable data, leaving the business owners, their clients, and stakeholders to deal with the aftermath.

With the soaring number of data exfiltration incidents, the pertinent question remains: How can we prevent data exfiltration? As an industry leader in data management and security solutions, Rubrik is at the forefront of developing solutions designed to protect businesses from these damaging breaches. This article will delve deeper into the topic of data exfiltration, providing readers with essential insights, methods, and tools that can aid in preventing these unwanted data leaks.

What is data exfiltration?

Data exfiltration is an unauthorized transfer of information—typically sensitive data—from one system to another. It’s one of the most common cybercrimes and is bad news for your company and your clients.

According to the 2020 Internet Crime Report by the FBI, a successful cyberattack happens every 1.12 seconds. Cybercrime is big business—costing companies billions of dollars annually. Small businesses are particularly vulnerable—accounting for over 50% of data breaches in the US in 2020. From phishing to malware, shady websites to network breaches—understanding how to mitigate the risk and cost if and when it happens is key to recovery. 

Common attacks

What are the most common data exfiltration techniques?

Some email data exportation and breaches are unintentional—caused by employees emailing sensitive information to the wrong party or an intended recipient forwarding it to an unauthorized recipient—but most email data exfiltration is malicious. Phishing emails purport to be from a reputable institution to lure recipients into divulging sensitive information. While standard phishing emails tend to be generic, spear phishing emails are specific, seeming like they’re from a trusted sender. Clicking on links in those emails can launch malware or ransomware that could infect an entire corporate network, leading to massive data leaks.

Unsecure devices
Ever copied information onto a thumb drive or personal laptop? Logged into public Wi-Fi? Any time you use a device that isn’t secure, it invites hackers to steal information. A careless employee can make it even easier by misplacing or losing their phone, USB, or laptop.

Unauthorized software or websites
Installing unauthorized software onto a company computer is a common way that malware or ransomware is introduced into a organization's network itself, potentially transferring sensitive data to malicious outsiders. The same goes for shady websites accessed through company computers.

The biggest takeaway? Data exfiltration takes more than a malicious outsider trying to steal sensitive information. It also requires internal vulnerability.

Data Exfiltration

Data Exfiltration Risk management and Compliance

Despite the most rigorous and vigilant prevention efforts, achieving absolute safety from data exfiltration remains an elusive goal. Cyberattacks are inevitable, their occurrence not a question of 'if' but 'when'. In such an environment, your primary safeguard lies in meticulous preparation to mitigate the extent of the damage, reducing potential risks that could compromise your business. This proactive approach can save your organization not only significant time and money but also safeguard its reputation and protect its invaluable data.

Data exfiltration, at its core, is an operation designed to pilfer as much data as it can, as swiftly as it can, all while maintaining a cloak of invisibility. In this clandestine endeavor, the adversary attempts to not only avoid detection but also prevent your data exfiltration prevention countermeasures from stopping their intrusion. Your success in deflecting such attempts largely hinges on your understanding and effective categorization of the various risks.

To elaborate, data exfiltration, also referred to as data theft or data leakage, presents significant threats to businesses worldwide. Not only is the business's proprietary, confidential, and sensitive corporate dataat stake, but data exfiltration can also lead to significant data loss, which can have severe repercussions for business operations and customer trust.

Moreover, the use of malware attacks by cybercriminals adds another layer of complexity to this threat landscape. Malware, or malicious software, can facilitate data exfiltration by providing a surreptitious entry into your systems and networks, creating a backdoor through which cybercriminals can stealthily extract your data. These malware attacks can cause not only data exfiltration or leakage to occur, but also disrupt your system's functionality and productivity.

Recognizing and understanding these risks are essential first steps. However, to truly fortify your defenses against data exfiltration, you must transform this understanding into action—designing and implementing rigorous cybersecurity protocols to prevent data exfiltration, contain malware attacks, and minimize data loss. While this won't provide absolute security, it can significantly enhance your resilience in the face of the persistent and evolving threat that cyberattacks pose.

Risk management starts with, not surprisingly, identifying your risk factors and your risk tolerance. The shift to the various cloud services and the move to remote work has increased data vulnerability exponentially. Your teams are working more flexibly and collaboratively than ever before. With that comes an increased amount of data put at risk of exfiltration. Risk management starts with, not surprisingly, identifying your risk factors and your risk tolerance.

Where (and when) are your greatest vulnerabilities when it comes to potential data exfiltration and which of those vulnerabilities are acceptable? After all, vulnerable and valuable data are two completely different concepts. Consider who has access to which data and where that data is being stored. Once you’ve determined the unacceptable vulnerabilities, the next step is the creation of smart data governance policies that address those unacceptable data vulnerabilities.  Just as important as the creation of data governance policies is the communication and training of those policies to your staff. Involve your HR, legal, communications, and other non-IT departments in the messaging and trainings to increase buy-in and create a highly risk-aware workforce. Last, but definitely not least, is how to respond and remediate threats.

Cybercrime is rising and the implications of data exfiltration are devastating. While prevention is the first line of defense from malicious hackers, it’s just as important to plan for detection and recovery for when the unthinkable happens—because it will happen. Effective risk management and data governance policies address three integral questions: What data is most vulnerable? Which vulnerabilities matter the most? How can we best address those vulnerabilities? Rubrik can help you avoid the legal, financial, social engineering and reputational risks of data exfiltration with solutions that quickly identify what data was encrypted, and where it resides, and what the level of sensitivity was—all of which can be used to make decisions that ensure a quick recovery.

FBI Internet Crime Report 2020
Comparitech Cybercrime Statistics 2021
Verizon 2021 Data Breach Investigations Report

Insider Threats and Data Exfiltration

Insider threats pose a serious and often underestimated risk to businesses. These threats arise from within the organization and can potentially compromise customer data, facilitating data exfiltration attacks. 

Employees, contractors, or other insiders may misuse their legitimate access to a company's systems or databases, deliberately or inadvertently, to leak sensitive information. Additionally, they may unintentionally become vectors for malware attacks if they fall prey to phishing attempts or use compromised devices. This can allow malware to infiltrate the system, enabling further data exfiltration attacks.

Addressing insider threats requires a robust security culture and effective user awareness training, alongside technical controls. A vigilant stance towards these threats significantly enhances the organization's ability to prevent data leakage, see user activity,  thwart malware attacks, and protect customer data from exfiltration.