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You've experienced a data leak: What do you need to do next?

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Data leaks are disruptive and destructive in equal measure. They put a halt to operations and have a huge impact on an organization’s reputation, not to mention the financial implications.

As data protection regulations continue to evolve, it’s critical to understand your responsibilities in the immediate aftermath of an incident. NIS2 calls for faster incident reporting (within 24 hours of an incident); under the GDPR, incidents must be reported to the ICO without ‘undue delay’ and within 72 hours.

If your organization has just encountered a data leak, taking immediate and informed action is crucial. Here's a step-by-step guide on what to do next in the wake of a data leak.

Step 1: Confirm and contain the breach

The first step is to confirm if a breach has indeed occurred. Quickly identify the scope and the source of the leak; was it through email? What kind of data was compromised? Who has been impacted?

Once confirmed, the priority is containing the breach to prevent any further data loss. This may involve revoking access to emails or files if possible, disabling affected accounts, changing passwords, or even temporarily halting certain operations.

Step 2: Assess the impact

Understanding the impact of a leak is crucial. Assess what data has been compromised and categorize it by sensitivity. For example, was it personally identifiable information (PII), financial data, or confidential corporate information? The type of data lost, and the number of stakeholders involved, will determine your next steps and the urgency of your response.

Step 3: Notify the relevant parties

Transparency is crucial in the wake of a data breach. You must inform all affected stakeholders, including but not limited to employees, customers, and business partners. Legal obligations may also require you to report the breach to specific regulatory authorities. 

When informing those involved, your communication must clearly explain what has occurred, the data involved, and the measures being taken in response.

Step 4: Take corrective action

When the immediate fallout is addressed, the next focus should be on corrective actions to prevent future incidents by strengthening your IT infrastructure against vulnerabilities that led to the breach. 

According to the latest reports from the ICO, human error remains the leading cause of data loss events (including missent emails, failure to redact sensitive information before sending, and misuse of Bcc). In addition, over 90% of all cyber attacks occur in email. So, in the likely event that your organization suffers a data loss incident involving email, you may need to implement secure practices to prevent similar events in the future, such as using encryption, deploying access controls, and setting up mechanisms to retract mistakenly sent emails. 

Step 5: Enhance your security posture

After taking action to prevent any immediate concerns, it's time to strengthen your overall security posture. Review and update your security policies and procedures, and conduct regular security training sessions for your staff to ensure they are aware of safe data management practices and the importance of data protection.

Step 6: Monitor and learn from experience

Importantly, use the breach as a learning opportunity to identify gaps in your security posture and response plans. Stay vigilant by monitoring your systems for any unusual activity and employ tools that offer real-time threat detection and analytics to detect potential incidents.

How to prevent data leaks before they happen

Navigating the aftermath of a data leak, especially one originating from email, requires a structured and informed approach. By communicating with stakeholders, implementing corrective measures and enhancing security protocols, you can mitigate the consequences and rebuild trust.

The key to resilience in the face of data leaks lies in preparation, prevention, and continuous evolution of your security strategies. Taking proactive steps to protect your data not only fortifies your security defenses but also reinforces your commitment to data privacy and security - matters that are increasingly important to stakeholders.

Find out how we are empowering 10,000 organizations globally to prevent the leading cause of data incidents.

First published -
Last updated - 09/04/24
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