Data breaches: This time it's more personal

Data breaches have shifted from stolen credit card data and financial information to the theft of something much more intimate—identities

Data breaches: This time it's more personal

Summer 2016 was not a good time for data breaches.

First, news broke that the Democratic National Committee was hacked, leading to the resignation of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and driving a wedge between Democratic Party members.

Later, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) announced that Russian hackers had illegally accessed its Anti-Doping Administration and Management System (ADAMS) database, leaking confidential medical information for U.S. athletes, including Simone Biles and Serena Williams.

Then earlier this month, passwords, usernames, email addresses and other personal information was published for more than 2.2 million people who created accounts with ClixSense, a site that pays users for completing online surveys and viewing advertisements.

These were not the only breaches of the summer, nor were they the largest. However, each is a clear example of the changing face of data breaches and the rise of identity theft.

The rise of identity theft

According to Gemalto’s Breach Level Index, for the first six months of 2016, identity theft was the leading type of data breach, accounting for 64 percent of all data breaches, up from 53 percent in the previous six months. Malicious outsiders were the leading source of data breaches, accounting for 69 percent of breaches, up from 56 percent in the previous six months.

What we have been seeing over the past two years is that data breaches have shifted from stolen credit card data and financial information to the theft of something much more intimate—identities. As a result, data breaches are becoming much more personal and the universe of risk exposure for people is widening.

In the case of the DNC and WADA breaches, sensitive data was leaked to publicly smear people. Contrast that with the IRS data breach involving more than 700,000 stolen Social Security numbers that resulted in thousands of false tax returns being filed. As companies, governments and other organizations collect ever-increasing amounts of customer information and as our online digital activities become more diverse and prolific, more data about what we do, who we are and what we like is at risk to be stolen from the companies that store our data.

Apathy abounds

So, why isn’t anyone paying attention? The truth is that despite today’s daily headlines about data breaches, the problem with cybersecurity is that there’s a lot of apathy regarding the issues. Consumers know their credit cards will be replaced and they will not be responsible for financial losses. Breached companies know their stock prices will rebound eventually, and government regulations are simply not a good prescription for security.

At this point the daily noise around data breaches is making it more difficult for consumers, government regulatory agencies and companies to distinguish between nuisance data breaches and truly impactful mega breaches. News reports fail to make these distinctions, but they are important to understand because each has different consequences. A breach involving 100 million user names is not as severe as a breach of 1 million accounts with Social Security numbers and other personally identifiable information that are used for financial gain.

In my first column, I stressed the need for organizations to create a "Secure Breach" environment to safeguard data. In this increasingly digital world where greater and greater amounts of data are being stored, managed and shared via the cloud and multiple (and unsecured) devices, it is clear that data breaches are going to happen. That is why companies need to shift from a total reliance on breach prevention to strategies that help them secure the breach once intruders get past network defenses.

That is why more focus needs to be on understanding what really constitutes sensitive data and where it is stored, and using the best means to defend it. At the end of the day, the best way to protect data is to kill it. That means ensuring sensitive data is protected with encryption so it is useless to the thieves.

Even though encryption is widely known, less than 4 percent of all data breaches this year involved data that was encrypted in part or in full, according to the Breach Level Index. This number has stayed more or less the same for the past several years, and that’s unacceptable.

While credit cards can be easily replaced and fraudulent charges covered, the damage from stolen identities and sensitive personal information is much longer lasting. So, what will that be the tipping point that moves companies to adopt a secure breach strategy? In my next blog, I’ll present some strategies for how companies can better defend data and secure the breach. In the meantime, let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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