Most Common Types of Data Breaches and How Attackers Compromise Data

According to Cost of a Data Breach Report 2023 from IBM, one data breach, on average, costs $4.5 million. This has increased 15 percent over the past three years. 

If you look up online for types of data breaches, you will most likely see ransomware, malware, phishing etc. listed as types. But these are the weaknesses or techniques used to achieve data breach. Data breach types are intricately linked with the techniques used to achieve that.

In this write-up, we will look in more detail at data breach types, their impact, and how to dodge a data breach at your personal or organizational level. But first, we will look at what a data breach means. 

What is a Data Breach?

To define data breach: a data breach is a situation where confidential, private and protected data or information gets exposed unauthorizedly to persons who are not authorized to view or access it. 

In this connected world run by data linkages and interfaces, the victims of data breaches may be individuals, big or small enterprises, and even governments. Because of the linkages and connected nature of information systems, any unprotected person, organization, or system can put others at risk because of the cascading effects. 

Why do data breaches happen?

Data breaches are essentially linked to the underlying weaknesses in technology and, more importantly, human behavior. 

As I stated above, the data leak and exposure points have multiplied manifold because of the more connected systems and devices. Data and technology protection efforts have not been able to keep pace with the faster pace at which new technologies are being created. 

The growth of IoT is a testament to the statement that we value convenience over security at any given time. The smart home devices have major security gaps built in. 

New digital services, devices and software are constantly being released without enough security testing. The result is that data breaches will continue to happen. 

Devices in the IoT sector are proof that we are increasingly valuing convenience over security.

However, technical vulnerabilities are not the only thing that is to be blamed for data breaches that we witness so frequently. Even with the best security in place on the backend, a human compromise can circumvent all those controls. 

What is the purpose of Data Breaches?

Although it is possible that a data breach might be the result of an innocent mistake at some level, but if it leads to unauthorized access of PII (Personally Identifiable Information) or sensitive corporate data for financial gains, then the real damage occurs. As we noted above, the main purpose of data breaches is mostly financially driven. 

Data breaches are carefully planned and executed and usually follow a basic pattern that involves targeting an organization or a high-profile individual. A detailed research follows where the attackers try to find vulnerabilities like missing technical updates of systems or employee weakness, especially their susceptibility to phishing. Then, they target the weakness and once inside the systems, they are free to access confidential and private data, copy it, export it, or sell it or use it for blackmail. 

Effects of data breaches

Successful data breaches can have alarming and devastating effects in financial terms and may also seriously tarnish an organization’s reputation. Organizations like Yahoo and Target are more known for their data breaches than what they actually do as a business. 

For governments, a compromise of data would mean exposure of highly confidential data that foreign parties might later access. Exposure of diplomatic data, military data, political positioning, and data on national infrastructure can seriously pose a major threat to a country and its citizens.

One of the biggest threats coming from data breaches is identity theft. Data breaches can expose data like social security numbers, addresses, phone numbers, and banking information. This can lead to serious fraud in your name if the data reaches criminals. For example, they might ruin your credit scores, entangle you in legal troubles etc.  

Notable data breaches

According to Data Breach Investigations Report by Verizon, most data breaches have occurred in the Finance, Information, Manufacturing, Public Administration, Healthcare, Education, and Entertainment industries.

This interesting report provides many insights on types of data breaches and other related information. 

The report noted that 74% of all breaches can be linked to a human element in compromise, which can happen via innocent error, social engineering, misuse of privileges in the system and use of compromised/stolen credentials.

The primary motivation for data breaches continues to be financial, which is at the root of 95 percent of breaches. Eighty-three percent of the data breaches were initiated or led by external actors. The three most common ways in which attackers achieve data breaches are:

  • Stolen credentials
  • exploitation of vulnerabilities
  • Phishing

The report has a ton of other interesting information and analysis and you might like to read it if you want to know the latest information on data breaches. 

Main Causes of Data Breaches

Understanding the weakest links from where data breaches happen is also important. Here are a few weak points which you need to watch for as sources of data breaches. 

Accidental/Unintentional Internet exposure –  Storing confidential data at a publicly accessible location without knowledge. 

Unsecured data transfer – If sensitive data is transferred and accessed unencrypted, it might lead to a data breach sooner or later. 

Error, negligence, or accidental deletion – Sometimes, the data may be unintentionally exposed because of improper security policies and procedures implementation. 

Hacking/intrusion – This is a rogue data compromise by targeted attacks from hackers and malicious third parties using techniques like phishing, malware, data exfiltration etc. 

Internal threats – Internal compromise by rogue employees who abuse their credentials and steal or destroy corporate data. Sometimes, the accounts of internal employees are compromised and used by internal rogue elements for data breach. 

Physical theft – Portable devices like laptops, mobiles and removal devices like USBs or portable hard drives carry sensitive information. Their theft or loss may lead to a data breach or stolen data. 

Unauthorized access – Malicious actors may take advantage of poorly designed and implemented access controls in systems to access and breach corporate data.

Data Breach techniques

We discussed above that it is not only technology that is the weak point. Human link is probably the weakest link the security chain. Here are some of the techniques that hackers use for data breach. 

1. Pretexting – which is a part of a social engineering attack where the attackers ask for certain information from the users on the pretext of validating their identity etc. 

2. Ransomware – installation of a ransomware software on victim systems. 

3. Phishing – convincing users to click on fake websites and apps and enter their sensitive data there, which is saved for the hackers. 

4. Password Guessing

5. Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS Attack) – This is not a purely data breach but it can impact data availability

6. Malware – installing software like trojans and other spying software that help steal sensitive data, credentials etc. 

7. Keystroke Loggers – again software/or physical which log every keystroke. Mostly used for stealing usernames/passwords on a system.

8. Social Engineering – Manipulating users on email or calls to give away their sensitive data and credentials, which might include privileged usernames/passwords or even banking credentials and one-time passwords (OTPs) 

Types of Data Breaches

There may be different types of data breaches, ranging from access compromises to financial data breaches. Here are the most common types of data breaches.


While ransomware is not technically a data breach but it affects data in such a way that data becomes unusable unless you pay a ransom. Therefore, it is rightly called a type of data breach. American oil pipeline company Colonial Pipeline suffered a ransomware compromise of its data in 2021 and had to pay $4.4 million as ransom. 

Customers data breach

Some of the biggest companies have suffered breaches of customers’ data, including personally identifiable information and their credit card data. The confidential data was breached at big companies like Adobe, Ebay, Yahoo, Twitter, Facebook etc.

You can read more details about top data breaches, the type of data breached, and the highly protected systems at these tech giants and big organizations. For example, the data breach at Yahoo resulted in exposure of data of 3 billion records.

Similarly, the national database of citizens of India was breached, and personally identifiable information of more than 1 billion people was exposed.

Business email compromise

Another type of data breach happens when email servers of an organization are compromised. The contents of the email have high-sensitivity information. Therefore, the compromise of email servers can be a big data breach in most organizations.  

Now that you are more knowledgeable about data breaches, the purpose and techniques used for breach of data, and types of data breaches, you should be more proactive in taking steps to avoid personal and corporate data compromises and breach. 

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.