The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines data spillage as a security incident that results in “the transfer of classified information onto an information system not authorized to store or process that information.” More simply: data spillage occurs when confidential information is released into an untrusted or unauthorized environment.

A data spill is also known as a data leak, compromise, or exposure. Unlike a data breach, a spill usually doesn’t happen out of malice. It usually results from human error, carelessness, or incompetence.

Nonetheless, data spills are becoming increasingly common and can cause severe problems for affected organizations. That’s why it’s vital for organizations to implement robust controls to prevent and mitigate such leaks.

What Is the Impact of a Data Spill?

In April 2019, two third-party Facebook datasets were exposed to the Internet. One leaked dataset contained more than 530 million records, including user account names and phone numbers. Two years later, the exfiltrated database appeared on the dark web for free. The sheer volume of leaked data made this one of the most significant data spill incidents of 2021.

Of course, Facebook is not new to data spills.

In 2018, Facebook admitted that consulting firm Cambridge Analytica exploited a weakness in Facebook’s API to harvest the data of 87 million Facebook profiles. Although the incident is sometimes called a data breach, it was actually a spill because Cambridge Analytica did not attempt to breach Facebook’s security perimeter. Rather, it took advantage of a security weakness to access user data improperly.

Regardless of how they happen, data spills significantly impact an organization’s cybersecurity. The leaked data may include confidential or proprietary information that the company has spent years gathering, processing, and protecting. If this sensitive or personal data falls into the wrong hands, it may be used to disrupt operations or perpetrate fraud.

In addition, data spillage can expose the organization to regulatory fines and lawsuits. The financial impacts are significant, considering the average cost of a breach (which is a good comparison for data spills) is now $4.24 million. A data spill also damages a company’s reputation, erodes trust, and increases customer churn. All of this can affect its competitiveness, revenues, and profits.

Types of Data Spillage

There are three main types of data spillage. It’s essential for organizations to understand these types to implement suitable protective and preventive measures.

Unintentional Release of Information

Accidental leaks are the most common data spills. For example, an employee may attach a sensitive file to an email and send it to the wrong person. Or someone may have a document open on his or her computer and leave the system unattended, allowing anyone to read the file or exfiltrate information on it.

A bad actor may even “shoulder surf” – watch someone over the shoulder to steal valuable information, such as the victim’s login credentials. This type of data leak is especially common in coffee shops or other public areas.

Even though such data spills are rarely malicious, they can also cause significant harm to the organization.

Theft or Loss of Physical Media

Any kind of physical media or device, such as laptops, mobile devices, external hard drives, removable USB drives, may contain sensitive data. If these devices are not correctly secured, the data on them could easily end up in an insecure environment or the wrong hands.

Often, such data spills are also accidental rather than malicious. But sometimes, a disgruntled employee or ex-employee may deliberately leave a device in a location where it can be stolen or compromised by cybercriminals or hackers, leading to a malicious data breach.

Electronic Data Transfer and Storage

Apart from email, modern employees use other electronic channels and shadow IT applications to share and store information. These security risks can lead to a data spill and violate record retention policies. A bad actor may target these systems with malware to exfiltrate the data being exchanged between legitimate parties.

An attacker may also launch a phishing attack to fool an employee into entering sensitive financial information or login credentials into a fake website. This adversary may then hack into enterprise systems to retrieve other sensitive information.

Strategies to Prevent Data Spills

There are several best practices for organizations to minimize data leakage:

Implement Strong Enterprise-Wide Security Controls

Strong security controls can protect sensitive data from both inadvertent spills and malicious breaches. These controls should include multi-layer security, such as:

  • Firewalls
  • Intrusion detection systems
  • Antivirus software
  • Endpoint detection and response (EDR) solutions
  • Data backup
  • Multi-factor authentication (MFA, or “TFA” for two-factor authentication)

In addition, data loss prevention (DLP) software helps ensure that end users don’t maliciously or accidentally send confidential or sensitive information outside the enterprise security perimeter.

It’s also important to test and verify all security controls and policies regularly. Such audits can help find gaps, take corrective action, and assure that controls remain effective at preventing data spillage incidents.

Restrict Data Access

In most enterprises, employees and third parties can easily access large volumes of information, increasing the chances of spillage of classified information. By restricting data access only to authorized users, data leaks and unauthorized disclosures can be minimized.

Restrictions can be implemented through user authentication and authorization procedures, such as access control lists and limitations to user privileges. The principle of the least privilege (PoLP) is a security method that only allows specific data access to the users that require it to perform their job functions.

Encrypt Data

Encrypting all private, sensitive, and classified information assures that it cannot be misused, even if it spills to an insecure location.

Employee Awareness

Educating employees about data protection policies and security best practices can all go a long way towards protecting sensitive information. This awareness must include training on:

  • Identifying phishing emails and social engineering schemes
  • Avoiding shoulder surfing
  • Securing devices with strong passwords
  • Reporting suspected data spill incidents to the appropriate authorities
  • Best practices for email communication and remote work

Prevent Data Spills with Help from ZenGRC

Data spillage is a serious threat to cybersecurity and information technology. By implementing robust security controls and educating employees about data security best practices, organizations can protect their sensitive information and minimize the damage from spills.

Workflow management features offer easy tracking, automated reminders, and audit trails. The ZenConnect feature enables integration with popular tools, such as Jira, ServiceNow, and Slack, ensuring seamless adoption within your enterprise.

Insightful reporting and dashboards provide visibility to gaps and high-risk areas. By better understanding your risk landscape, you can take action to protect your business from cyberattacks, avoid costly data breaches, and monitor the security posture of your vendors.

You can also keep your data secure by understanding your risk environment with ZenGRC. This integrated platform can expose and track evolving data risks and show you where they are changing. Leverage its capabilities to reduce the risk of data spills and minimize business exposure.

Schedule a demo today to see how ZenGRC can help your organization streamline data management and security.