What Is Data Exfiltration and How Do You Prevent It?

Lauryn Cash
Written by Lauryn Cash
News and Commentary /
What Is Data Exfiltration and How Do You Prevent It?

Without a doubt, the data your organization holds is exceptionally valuable. From sensitive industry secrets to user data, there are billions of dollars available for anyone with access—$200 billion, to be precise.

Keeping your data safe from threat actors has never been more critical. When safeguarding company data, preventing data exfiltration is paramount. But what is data exfiltration, exactly?

Any time information or intellectual property travels outside your organization’s perimeters without your authorization, you’re dealing with data exfiltration. And while you may think, “That will never happen in my company,” you’d be surprised. But unfortunately, potential data loss is a common risk many organizations face.

When it comes to preventing data exfiltration, knowledge is power. Today we’ll be explaining the nuances of data exfiltration, how it happens, and how you can stop it.

Data Exfiltration, Defined

Data exfiltration involves the movement of internal data outside of an organization—without being authorized to do so. In other words, data exfiltration is a type of data theft.

However, data exfiltration doesn’t always start with malicious intent – it can also occur when well-meaning employees make mistakes.

Regardless of how it happens, data exfiltration can cause severe financial damage. According to a 2022 report from IBM, the average data breach costs a company $4.35 million. Between lawsuits, penalties, and loss of customer trust, data exfiltration can be catastrophic. That’s why it pays to understand how data exfiltration can occur – literally.

How Data Exfiltration Occurs

Data exfiltration incidents can be broken into three categories:

  • Malicious outsiders
  • Malicious insiders
  • Negligent insiders

Let’s take a closer look at all three.

Malicious Outsiders

Not surprisingly, most exfiltration attempts come from external threat actors. Per the FBI's Internet Crime Complaint Center's 2021 Report, vishing, smishing, phishing, and pharming attacks made up most cybercrimes, claiming over 320,000 victims. Financial losses due to BEC (Business Email Compromise) and EAC (Email Account Compromise) totaled almost $2.4 billion.

Threat actors can obtain organizations’ sensitive and confidential data through targeted threats or socially engineered email attacks.

Malicious actors may try to gain access to internal information through brute force attacks or targeted malware attacks, as attackers look to penetrate security layers through malware within email attachments. Armorblox Advanced Malware Detection provides the flexibility, visibility, and fast response necessary to mitigate these sophisticated malware attacks and threats before sensitive data is exposed.

Cybercriminals can also obtain physical access to your data by inserting a USB drive into a company computer. Once they have access to your corporate network, they can exfiltrate data from employee devices, servers, or cloud storage platforms.

Similarly, threat actors can obtain confidential and sensitive data through socially engineered attacks, such as:

  • Spear phishingSpear phishing is a highly targeted form of phishing that pursues specific individuals. In a data exfiltration attempt, the attacker will send an email to someone with privileges to access the desired information.
  • Ransomware – Ransomware attacks can also begin as phishing attempts. Ransomware can hold a user’s device “hostage” until demands are met—in this case, the delivery of sensitive data.

Data exfiltration attempts can often combine these two common tactics. Attackers target employees through credential phishing email attacks to exfiltrate sensitive user and login credentials. Attackers then use the employee credentials obtained through these attacks to steal personal and organization-specific sensitive and confidential data.

Malicious Insiders

Though it’s rare to have threat actors within your organization, employees can be contributors to organization-specific data loss. For example, insiders commonly commit data exfiltration by downloading data to an external device, like a thumb drive.

By copying files from a company device to a personal drive, insiders can easily take data outside your organization’s network. Once offsite, organization-specific sensitive data can be transferred to another threat actor or sold online.

Negligent Insiders

Finally, some data exfiltration incidents begin due to human error. Some incidents can be completely innocent, such as downloading organization-specific sensitive data onto an unsecured personal device. This negligence can be due to an employee not knowing that storing company data on an unprotected personal laptop is a security risk.

Other human errors that can lead to data exfiltration attacks include:

  • Creating weak passwords
  • Reusing old passwords
  • Not employing two-factor authentication (2FA)
  • Sharing photos, videos, or audio recordings on social media that unknowingly contain sensitive information
  • Downloading unauthorized software onto company devices

Because these are common occurrences, it can be challenging for security teams to determine whether a data exfiltration incident was intentional or accidental.

Data Exfiltration Via Email

Whether intentional or not, a common thread between many data exfiltration methods is email. Email is one of the most common routes for data exfiltration—internal and external.

Insiders with ill intent can use their company email to funnel sensitive data outside the company.

And outsiders with ill intent use email as the starting point for many data exfiltration schemes. From Business Email Compromise scams to spear phishing attacks, email is still the #1 attack vector. Attacks use email as the primary entry point for data exfiltration, targeting messages across organizations to export sensitive data.

So, when it comes to preventing data exfiltration, protecting your business from email data loss is a natural place to start. However, there are several methods that you can (and should) package together.

How to Prevent Data Exfiltration

Some of the steps you can take to tackle data exfiltration today include:

  • Educating employees – Teaching employees and contractors at all levels about email security awareness is a must. For example, you might go through a training module on spotting and reporting phishing attempts.
  • Limiting access – It’s always wise to ensure that only employees who need to access info have access. In other words, very few people should be able to view and copy sensitive data.
  • Monitoring device usage – A “no personal devices” policy can reduce the risk of unauthorized data transfers via a thumb drive or personal computer.

Implementing the above can require hours of manual work and consistent monitoring by security teams. Email DLP solutions with policies and detections powered by AI and ML can better protect against leakage of sensitive data and save security teams time with automated security responses.

Save security teams time with an email DLP solution that automates response and detects data loss through AI and ML versus static rule-based policy setup.

Protect Yourself From Data Exfiltration The Armorblox Way

Does DLP technology sound like something that could benefit your organization? It probably is—and if so, you’ll want a future-proof, easy-to-use solution.

Armorblox Advanced Data Loss Prevention uses the power of language-based machine learning models and NLU to protect your organization from the accidental or malicious leakage of organization-specific data.

Armorblox email DLP reduces false positives to improve the efficiency of security operations and prevents the sharing of sensitive data by combining user-behavior analytics, content analysis, and insights from business workflows conducted over email.

Take our free risk assessment today and start protecting your organization-specific data tomorrow.

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