Back to the Blog

What Is Data Spillage and How Can You Prevent It?

Mark Lukehart

discussing how to prevent data spillage

Data spillage is a significant cybersecurity risk that every organization should be aware of. Data spillage happens when classified, protected, or sensitive information is leaked into an unsecured digital environment.

Despite advancements in cybersecurity and risk management technology, data spillage is still a significant threat to organizations. Even large organizations aren’t immune – the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica scandal is one of the most famous examples of data spillage.

While data spillage isn’t typically malicious, it can have devastating consequences for individuals or organizations who are affected. Because data spills have the potential to be so damaging, it’s important to take steps to prevent it. Let’s dive further into what data spillage is and how to prevent it.

Key Takeaways

  • Data spillage happens when sensitive or classified information is leaked from a secure online environment to an unsecured one, making it accessible to outsiders.
  • Data spillage typically happens as a result of human error rather than malice.
  • Even minor data spillage can compromise your organization’s reputation and cause financial damage.
  • Putting together a robust data classification and access control system will help you prevent data spillage.

What is Data Spillage?

Data spillage is an incident where classified information is released from a secure digital location into an unsecured one. This is also sometimes referred to as a data leak. When this happens, third parties might access this data using the internet, which can lead to serious security and privacy breaches.

Unlike cyber attacks and third-party data breaches, data spillage usually is not malicious. Instead, it happens as a result of mistakes on the part of employees within the organization. 

Some common examples of data spillage include accidentally emailing confidential documents to the wrong recipient or making unauthorized data transfers between systems. Data loss is also more common than you might think—in 2022, 422 million individuals were impacted by some form of data compromise. 

How Does Data Spillage Occur?

There are many different ways that data spillage happens. In many cases, it happens because someone with access to secure data isn’t doing due diligence or is simply careless. A lack of cybersecurity education often leads to data spillage as well. When your employees don’t understand what security risks are present, they may inadvertently share sensitive data with third parties, leading to leaks.

Hackers aren’t usually the initial cause of data spills, as these leaks usually happen internally as a result of human error. However, many cybercriminals look for data spills online to exploit.

One of the most common ways that data spillage happens is via email. Many people will send sensitive pieces of information to coworkers or business partners in unencrypted emails in an attempt to save time, only to leave the data completely exposed. Spillage can also happen when sending data through a variety of other unencrypted channels, such as social media platforms or cloud-based SaaS platforms.

Data spillage also happens when hardware is improperly managed. For example, if you fail to dispose of a computer or smartphone properly and it contains sensitive data, it could lead to data leakage if a third party uses the device in the future. In the same vein, spillage can happen when a device is lost or stolen.

Finally, data spillage can occur if you fail to implement and maintain a robust security strategy for your systems. For example, neglecting to update your software programs regularly, use secure passwords, or use firewalls could put your systems at risk for data spillage. A recent data spill from the US Patent Office happened as a result of a poorly-protected API. 

How Does Data Spillage Impact A Company?

Data spillage could negatively impact your organization in a variety of ways, even if the spill is contained quickly. Here are just a few of the ways that a data spill could impact your company.

Financial Damage

Your finances could take a direct hit after a data spillage incident. Not only will you need to spend money to clean up the spill and re-secure the data, but you may also lose customers as a result of the leak. Depending on your industry and the data that was compromised, you may also need to pay fines or even lawsuits. The average cost of a data breach in 2023 is approximately $9.48 million.

Reputational Damage

In addition to hurting your organization’s finances, a data spill can also damage your company’s reputation in the long term. Because so many aspects of our lives are handled online these days, consumers need to be able to trust brands with their personal data. A data spill indicates to potential customers that you may not be fully trustworthy, causing them to avoid doing business with you.

In addition to damaging your reputation among potential customers, this type of security incident can also cause significant reputational damage within your industry. Business partners may not want to work with you due to a perceived lack of security, and you may even struggle to hire new employees as well.

Compliance Issues

Governments around the world have put laws in place surrounding the protection of consumer data. Many industries have put their own regulations in place as well. A data spill will put your organization in breach of these laws and regulations.

This means you may have to pay fines and or even deal with more serious legal consequences. If your organization has been accredited or endorsed, you could potentially lose these valuable endorsements as a result of a data spill.

Compromised Operations

Even a relatively minor data spill could wreak havoc on your operations. The average data breach takes 287 days to contain. 

Instead of working on tasks as normal, your team will need to divert their time and energy to manage the spill. This will impact your organization’s productivity and morale as a whole.

In severe cases, a data spill could even take your entire system offline. Not only will this disrupt your internal operations across multiple departments, but it will also make it very difficult for your customers to access your website.

How to Prevent Data Spillage

If you don’t already have a data protection strategy in place to prevent leaks, now is the time to implement one. Here are some of the steps you can take to ensure your classified data stays classified.

Data Classification and Labeling

Some pieces of your organization’s data are inherently going to be more sensitive than others. Classifying and labeling your data is an important first step to keeping it safe and organized. Sort your data into categories based on its sensitivity and importance.

There are many different types of data that need high levels of protection. These include personal and financial data from both your customers and your employees as well as intellectual property. Conduct regular audits on your data to ensure that everything is properly classified and labeled, as your situation may change over time.

Access Control

Once you have your data classified and labeled, put procedures in place to determine how data in each category should be used. In particular, you’ll need to put access control measures in place for your employees based on their role and seniority in the company. Only senior officials and those who need access in order to work should have credentials for your most sensitive information.

Data Encryption

Encryption is another important data loss prevention strategy. This is particularly important if you need to send secure data to another user or system for any reason.

Data encryption translates your information into a coded form that is only decipherable with the right password or decryption key. This prevents the data from unauthorized access as it moves between systems. Many digital platforms and websites already have built-in encryption features, but you can also manually encrypt emails and other messages for an added layer of security.

Encrypting your digital communications will put you ahead of the curve when it comes to digital security. According to the 2021 Thales Global Security Study, 83% of organizations did not encrypt their cloud data. 

Employee Training and Awareness

Since so many data spills happen as a result of human error, it’s very important to make sure your employees are properly trained on security strategy. Since cybersecurity threats are always evolving, your entire team should receive ongoing training on how to safely work with and transfer protected data.

This training is particularly important for senior employees who work with classified data frequently. Additionally, it’s essential for all employees to learn how to spot and avoid potential cyber attacks that could compromise your systems.

Data Loss Prevention Solutions

Data loss prevention solutions are software programs that use incident response and prevention features to find data spills. There are many different types of data loss prevention programs targeted towards a variety of industries. They are built with compliance in mind and will help you build a data classification system if you don’t have one already.

These programs will also notify you immediately of any potential data breaches they detect. This will give you time to respond and prevent data from spreading.

How a Managed Service Provider Can Help You

Data management can be very daunting and time-consuming, particularly for growing companies. Working with a managed service provider, or MSP, will help you keep your data safe and put together an incident response plan.

MSPs are third-party IT service providers that can either support your in-house IT team or serve as an entire outsourced IT department. MSPs offer services like 24/7 monitoring, security configuration, data backup, and cybersecurity training to help prevent data spillage. MSPs are cost-effective and scalable, so your organization can select the services that best fit your needs.