Data breaches: everything you need to know and how to prevent them

Our expert guide on what data breaches are, their impact on your business and customers, and how to guard against them.

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The term “data breach” is known to instil fear in business owners across the globe. A data breach can obliterate customer trust and harm your all-important customer retention, as well as creating severe legal and reputational risks. But what does a data breach entail and how can you guard against them?

Small and large businesses that are entrusted with valuable customer data are frequently targets of cyber threats. 

Whether it's shoring up defences or devising a savvy response plan, this guide aims to equip you with the insights and strategies needed to protect your data assets while retaining customers and securing their loyalty.

Understanding data breaches

Data breaches manifest in various forms, each posing a unique threat to the security of sensitive information. Common types include:

  • Cyber-attacks: deliberate intrusions by external entities seeking unauthorised access to data. For instance, a sophisticated hacking group infiltrating a financial institution's database to gain access to customer financial records.
  • Insider threats: breaches originating within an organisation, involving employees or individuals with internal access. An example could be an employee intentionally leaking sensitive company information to competitors.
  • Phishing attacks: deceptive attempts to acquire sensitive information by posing as a trustworthy entity. For example, fraudulent emails mimicking a bank's communication to trick recipients into revealing login credentials.
  • Malware incidents: the introduction of malicious software compromising data integrity and security. An illustrative case is a ransomware attack where malware encrypts a company's files, demanding payment for their release.

Who is at risk?

The spectrum of individuals and entities at risk during a data breach is broad, encompassing:

  • Customers: their personal information – including names, addresses, payment details, and purchase history – is at stake during a breach. This could lead to potential identity theft or financial loss.
  • Employees: their sensitive data might be compromised, which includes national insurance numbers, bank details, and employment records. This exposes them to identity theft or financial fraud.
  • Businesses: the integrity of a company's operations, financial data, and intellectual property can be threatened during a breach. This can lead to financial losses, damage to its reputation, and legal repercussions.
  • Stakeholders: business partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders with shared data connections may also face vulnerabilities during a breach.

The impact on organisations

Data breaches don’t just affect people – they can have huge repercussions for business operations, compromising firms operationally, legally, financially, and reputationally. Internally, employees bear the consequences as their personal information becomes vulnerable, raising the risk of identity theft or financial exploitation.

The financial implications of investigations and potential fines places a significant strain on the company's finances. 

Breaches tarnish the company's reputation, impacting partnerships, investor and customer confidence, and future opportunities.

Customers can lose trust in a business when their sensitive data such as personal information, payment details, or purchase history is exposed by a data breach. This can result in negative publicity, legal consequences, and reduced customer retention. 

The after-effects of data breaches can permeate company culture, eroding employee morale and long-term customer trust.

Notable data breaches 2023-4

5 June 2023: a cyber incident shook prominent entities BBC, British Airways, Boots, and Aer Lingus, exposing employee data to hackers. The compromised information included contact details, national insurance numbers, and bank details.

July 3, 2023: the notorious hacking group ALPHV infiltrated one of the UK’s largest hospital groups, Barts Health NHS Trust, jeopardising confidential data. The breach – attributed to the BlackCat gang – involved unauthorised access to seven terabytes of internal documents, impacting the trust responsible for five London hospitals that serve around 2.5 million individuals.

9th Jan 2024: online retailer “the Iconic” faced a breach leading to fraudulent orders and unauthorised charges on customer accounts. Customers, a few of whom hadn't shopped at the Iconic for years, reported more than £1,000 being taken from their accounts.

Prevention strategies

Preparing for and preventing data breaches is a non-negotiable for any small business that stores and manages customer data. 

Here is a simple step-by-step list of strategies that can help defend your business and customer data from looming cyber threats:

Step 1: form an incident response team

Forming an incident response team involves assembling a dedicated group of experts from various domains, including IT, legal, communication, and executive representatives and defining clear roles and responsibilities.

Once roles are established, the incident response team can help you to:

  • Create a Formal Incident Management Plan (FIM): similar to a business continuity plan, a FIM can help you efficiently respond to cybersecurity incidents if the worst case scenario was ever to occur. According to gov.uk, only 21% of UK businesses currently have a formal plan.
  • Deploy firewalls and intrusion detection systems: deploying these systems can help to actively defend against cyber threats.
  • Periodically back up data: implement a robust data backup strategy to safeguard against data loss in the event of a breach.
  • Use antivirus software: install and regularly update antivirus software on a monthly basis to detect and mitigate potential threats to your systems.
  • Keep your systems up to date: regularly update and patch your software to promptly address vulnerabilities and enhance security.
  • Implement end-to-end encryption: protect data in transit by implementing end-to-end encryption for communication, ensuring a secure exchange of information.

Data breach protectors: SU Alumni

Quantum Dice and Hack The Box stand out as notable contributors when it comes to data protection, each offering unique innovations. 

Quantum Dice is spearheading the realm of encryption through verifiably secure quantum key generators. As a rapidly growing force, it introduces a novel dimension to safeguarding sensitive information. 

On the other hand, Hack The Box plays a pivotal role in fortifying cybersecurity capabilities. By providing individuals, businesses, and universities with comprehensive tools, it empowers them to continuously enhance their defences against threats.

Step 2: educate yourself as owner of the company

You, as the owner of the business, need to have insights into the security systems you employ, if only to be a good example for your employees and to reduce any errors on your part.

  • Choose secure platforms and tools: from CRM tools to internal comms, select platforms and tools that prioritise data security in both internal and external communications, enhancing the overall security posture of your organisation.
  • Use strong passwords: strengthen your digital defences by utilising strong, unique passwords across your systems and accounts.
  • Adhere to GDPR: ensure that you and your company uphold strict adherence to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) when conducting business to safeguard the rights and privacy of individuals.
  • Be cautious of suspicious emails or websites: exercise vigilance against potential threats by avoiding suspicious emails and websites that could compromise your security.
  • Practice safe browsing: adopt safe browsing habits to minimise the risk of encountering malicious content online.

Step 3: educate your wider employee network

Both you and your employees should stay informed about evolving cybersecurity threats and how to identify and handle potential risks. 

These tips are for those who aren’t directly involved in the everyday cybersecurity of your organisation but still need to be aware of potential threats and risks, and how their actions could potentially mitigate them. 

  • Train your employees: offer training and comprehensive testing on phishing, social engineering, and the secure handling of sensitive information. This can help foster a culture of cybersecurity awareness. 
  • Build on your company culture: a culture within your organisation that prioritises cybersecurity awareness and encourages responsible digital practices among employees is the safest one to have.

3 prevention strategy case studies

GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters): as the UK's intelligence and security agency, GCHQ actively implements cutting-edge cybersecurity measures to protect national security. Their strategies include constant monitoring, threat intelligence sharing, and collaboration with other agencies and the private sector.

 

Barclays: this major UK bank has invested significantly in cybersecurity measures. Its prevention strategies involve robust firewalls, encryption protocols, and regular employee training to identify and mitigate cyber threats. It prioritises customer data protection to maintain trust.

NHS: the NHS has faced significant cyber threats in the past, leading to increased efforts in prevention. After the ‘WannaCry’ ransomware attack in 2017, the NHS has focused on improving cybersecurity infrastructure, conducting regular audits, and implementing staff training programs to prevent future incidents.

Data protection resources

Navigating the realm of data protection within the UK demands a comprehensive understanding of the guidelines and resources available. 

In this section we have collated essential UK-specific resources to help you on your journey to becoming a company with a robust cybersecurity system.

UK organisations

  • Information Commissioner's Office (ICO): as the UK's independent authority on data privacy, the ICO offers comprehensive guidance, resources, and tools to help businesses understand and comply with data protection laws.
  • National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC): focused on enhancing the UK's cybersecurity posture, the NCSC provides valuable insights and practical advice to protect against cyber threats. Its resources include guidance on securing networks, mitigating risks, and responding effectively to incidents.

Government resources

  • Gov.uk: the UK government's official website is a treasure trove of information on data protection and privacy laws. It outlines legal obligations, offers guidance for businesses of all sizes, and provides updates on regulatory changes.
  • Cyber Aware: a government initiative that’s tailored for small businesses and individuals and provides guidance on basic cybersecurity measures.

Legal acts

  • General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR): GDPR sets out the rules for how businesses should handle personal data. Compliance with GDPR is imperative and involves ensuring transparent data processing, obtaining consent, and implementing robust security measures to protect an individual’s data.
  • Data Protection Act 2018: this act supplements and builds upon the framework established by GDPR, customising guidelines to accommodate specific UK provisions. This legislation elaborates on regulations governing data processing, accountability, and the rights of individuals pertaining to their personal data.

Responding to a data breach

Navigating the aftermath of a data breach requires a swift and strategic response. Here's what you can do when a data breach is discovered:

Immediate strategies

🔔 Step 1: Alert

Alert the internal incident response team to initiate the coordinated response set out in your FIM. A clear chain of communication ensures that all relevant parties are informed promptly, allowing for a swift and collaborative effort to mitigate the breach's fallout.

📦 Step 2: Contain

Immediately isolate the affected systems or data to prevent the spread of the breach. This involves cutting off access to compromised areas, shutting down affected servers or systems, or disconnecting from networks to halt the breach's progression. This containment strategy aims to limit the breach's impact, reducing potential data exposure and further compromise of systems or information.

📔 Step 3: Document

Documentation plays a critical role in understanding the breach's scope and impact. This includes gathering essential information, such as the time and method of breach discovery, the affected systems or data, the potential vulnerabilities exploited, and initial assessments of the breach's severity. 

Comprehensive documentation aids in subsequent investigations, supports incident analysis, and assists in compliance reporting and legal obligations.

Follow-up strategies

🤔 Step 1: Assess

Assess the breach comprehensively, taking time to understand its root cause, the extent of damage, and the methods employed by the intruders. This critical evaluation allows for a deeper comprehension of the breach's mechanics, aiding in fortifying defences and preventing future occurrences. 

💻 Step 2: Notify

Notifications should encompass detailed information regarding the breach's nature, the potential impact on individuals, and the measures being undertaken to address and mitigate the breach.

🗣️ Step 3: Communicate

Once you understand what happened, you can develop a coherent external communication plan to manage media enquiries and public perception effectively – upholding transparency, credibility, and maintaining trust amidst the crisis. 

Maintain an ethos of transparency by promptly and openly communicating with the affected parties. Clearly outline the breach's nature, the extent of its impact, and the proactive steps taken to mitigate its consequences. 

This approach fosters trust and reassures stakeholders and customers of the dedication to resolving the issue.

❤️‍🩹Step 4: Support

Offer guidance or support services to those affected by the breach. Providing resources or assistance can help mitigate potential harm, offering protection against identity theft or financial repercussions. This empathetic gesture showcases a commitment to supporting affected individuals through a challenging situation.

3 successful data breach recoveries

Target: in the 2013 Target data breach, early detection and a swift response were instrumental in mitigating the impact. Target identified unusual network activity, promptly investigated, and contained the breach, showcasing the importance of proactive monitoring and rapid response.

Equifax: Equifax's 2017 breach emphasised the necessity of a well-defined incident response plan. Despite the scale of the breach, Equifax's FIM enabled them to coordinate actions effectively, minimising damage and enhancing the recovery process.

NHS: the ‘WannaCry’ ransomware attack in 2017 showcased the effectiveness of collaboration. Organisations affected, such as the UK's National Health Service (NHS), worked closely with cybersecurity experts and law enforcement to contain the attack, emphasising the importance of collaboration during a crisis.

Conclusion

The comprehensive suite of strategies outlined in this guide are not just about mitigating immediate risks, but they also outline proactive steps towards nurturing and retaining your customers. By taking this holistic approach to data security, incorporating prevention, response, and continuous improvement, you can grow your business and customer base safely.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How can I enhance my organisation's cybersecurity to prevent security breaches?
    To bolster your organisation's cybersecurity, you should adopt a comprehensive strategy. Keep all software up to date, utilise firewalls and antivirus software, and provide ongoing employee training on security best practices. Regularly evaluate and enhance your security infrastructure to stay ahead of evolving threats.
  • What role does employee training play in preventing security breaches?
    Employee training can educate staff on identifying phishing attempts, the importance of strong password management, and the potential risks of sharing sensitive information.
  • How can compliance with data protection laws contribute to preventing security breaches?
    Compliance with data protection laws, such as GDPR, establishes a strong foundation for preventing security breaches. These laws mandate the implementation of security measures, secure handling of sensitive data, and the timely reporting of breaches.
Written by:
Stephanie Lennox is the resident funding & finance expert at Startups: A successful startup founder in her own right, 2x bestselling author and business strategist, she covers everything from business grants and loans to venture capital and angel investing. With over 14 years of hands-on experience in the startup industry, Stephanie is passionate about how business owners can not only survive but thrive in the face of turbulent financial times and economic crises. With a background in media, publishing, finance and sales psychology, and an education at Oxford University, Stephanie has been featured on all things 'entrepreneur' in such prominent media outlets as The Bookseller, The Guardian, TimeOut, The Southbank Centre and ITV News, as well as several other national publications.

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