What is Data Exfiltration? How It Works, Best Practices & More

When data is transmitted in an unauthorized manner, it’s known as data exfiltration. Here’s what you need to know about data exfiltration and how to protect your business against it. 

Today’s businesses manage a vast volume of data, and much of that data is stored in the cloud and transferred over the internet. When data is transmitted in an unauthorized manner, whether it’s stolen by malicious actors or inadvertently downloaded or transferred to an unauthorized application by an employee, it’s known as data exfiltration. Here’s what you need to know about data exfiltration and how to protect your business. 

Definition of Data Exfiltration

Data exfiltration describes unauthorized data transfer, either manually from a device or over a network. The unauthorized transfer of data is also called data extrusion, data exportation, or data theft. Data exfiltration poses a serious challenge to businesses with confidential information stored on servers, such as proprietary data and the sensitive data of customers, vendors, partners, and other stakeholders. A recent high-profile incident is the SunTrust data breach, in which an insider stole the data of 1.5 million customers.

How Does Data Exfiltration Happen?

Malicious actors can export data in bulk or in a targeted manner. They may target specific data such as usernames, passwords, strategic-confidential information, financial information, personally identifiable information (PII), etc. In other cases, hackers transfer all the data they can access and comb through it to determine if there’s anything valuable they can use for nefarious purposes.

There are multiple ways malicious actors can gain access to transfer data. Here’s a look at a few of the common methods used in data exfiltration. 

Through Someone with Direct Access

Employees have direct access to data on the company’s servers. Employees such as system administrators work directly on managing and maintaining servers and have direct access to information. They can directly transfer the data to transportable devices like USB drives or optical disks. Another method often used is installing malware that transfers data to external servers.

Hackers can also gain access through vendors and other partners with which they share information and access. This is a common threat most businesses overlook; in fact, this is how the well-known Target data breach in 2013 was carried out. Hackers can also compromise remote access applications to execute data exfiltration. In 2018, an employee modified the code of Tesla’s Manufacturing Operating System to transfer data to an unauthorized third party, according to Elon Musk.

Weak Security Practices

Managers and front-line employees alike may be tired of hearing the oft-repeated advice about avoiding weak passwords and using unique passwords for every application or service. But the truth is that many people still fail to follow this best practice, despite the widespread awareness of the importance of strong, unique passwords. In fact, 91% of respondents to a survey conducted by LogMeIn said they’re aware of the risks of using the same password for multiple accounts, yet 59% said they do so anyway. Many instances of data exfiltration can be avoided by following best practices, such as creating strong, unique passwords and changing them frequently. 

Advanced Persistent Threats (APT)

When hackers are focused on one company to attack, with data exfiltration as their primary motive, they often launch APT campaigns. These consist of persistent and aggressive attacks at the target company employing different methodologies. Once they gain access, they employ techniques to remain undetected while searching for specific types of data, such as customer data or intellectual property, that they then copy or transfer.  

Other Hacking Techniques

Today, hackers don’t rely on a single technique but on a combination of methods to execute data exfiltration attacks. Spyware, viruses, ransomware, botnets can be used in a combination to execute attacks. Phishing and other social engineering methods are also used by malicious actors to gain access to data or security credentials. Brute force attacks are also common.

Best Practices to Prevent Data Exfiltration

We already know that a proactive approach is better than a reactive approach to security, yet many people and businesses ignore even the basic tenets of cybersecurity. There are advanced tools and techniques to ensure the security of data, but even the best tools don’t eliminate the need for following sound security practices. Here are a few best practices for cyber hygiene and some advanced techniques and tools that can help keep your company’s data secure. 

Follow Basic Cyber Hygiene Practices

As mentioned earlier, many cyberattacks can be avoided with strong, regularly changed passwords and other basic cyber hygiene best practices, such as not clicking on links in emails that come from untrusted senders, verifying that emails are from the authentic source, and not opening suspicious attachments. 

Stay Up to Date

Keep your software, drivers, and applications up to date. Manufacturers and developers implement patches and updates to address vulnerabilities and fix known system issues, so failing to install these updates can leave your applications – and your company’s sensitive data at risk. Staying up to date on the recent news and developments in the cybersecurity space is also important.

Implement Employee Security Awareness Training

Social engineering attacks are becoming common nowadays. Security awareness training teaches employees to recognize the common phishing attacks and other social engineering tactics employed by hackers. There are many free cybersecurity training resources SMBs can leverage to improve employee cyber awareness

Adopt Web Application Monitoring & Other Security Tools

Hackers often steal data from endpoints as they are most vulnerable to attacks. Endpoint protection must be a priority for any company to prevent data exfiltration. Security tools should also be deployed to thwart threats in web applications, as well, such as Zeguro’s website vulnerability monitoring tool

Data exfiltration is a common practice employed by cyber attackers today. With today’s companies managing a large volume of data across a multitude of applications, systems, and networks, robust security measures are a must for keeping your business secure. Adopting these essential best practices can help protect your company from data exfiltration and other exploits.

Zeguro is a cyber safety solution and insurance provider for small to mid-sized businesses (SMBs), offering a comprehensive suite of tools for risk mitigation and compliance, as well as insurance premiums that are tailored to the size, sector and profile of a company.
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Jai Bawa
Written by

Jai Bawa

Content Marketing and Social Media Intern

Student at San Jose State University, fascinated with the world of Digital Marketing. Movie enthusiast. Always curious!

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