From customer credit card details that ease the flow at online checkouts to employee records that are vital to HR departments, today’s businesses are built on sensitive data. In many ways, it’s the lifeblood that makes the modern company tick. If experience is anything to go by, though, it can also feel like the next big security disaster is waiting to happen.

Data leaks and breaches are alarmingly common, but there are still many misconceptions as to how and why they happen. Images of attackers cracking into top-secret databases from their darkly-lit bedrooms may be rife in the media, but the real reason sensitive data is made public is usually a far cry from your typical Hollywood hacker movie.

The reality is that data leaks can often be traced to company insiders, usually the result of an unhappy accident or structural flaw. It can be anything from basic human error to a ‘bending’ of the rules in your company’s computer network.

Data leak, data breach – what’s the difference?

Given such huge disparities between the types of incidents that can result in data being made public, we might separate them into two distinct groups: data breaches and data leaks.

With a data breach, attackers typically need to access a server through a vulnerability, or by carrying out the kind of attack that could be prevented with the right security solution in place.

With a data leak, it’s possible that there are no obvious security holes. Instead, the data might have found its way into the wrong hands because of some irresponsible internal action, or, for instance, the malicious actions of a disgruntled employee.

The distinction between data “leaks” and “breaches” is not universal. Many experts would classify all of these types of data loss as data breaches – after all, they can all be just as damaging to your company. But by separating them here we’re able to break down the issues and better understand why these incidents occur.

So when it comes to data leaks, what are the major weak spots you need to be looking out for?

  1. Human error

Despite what you may have invested in when it comes to a security solution, human error is the one thing you’ll never be able to account for – at least not entirely. According to PWC’s 2015 Information Security Breaches Survey, 50% of the worst breaches of last year were caused by inadvertent human error.

Just a few months ago, for instance, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. was left dealing with the fallout after a former employee walked out with a USB drive containing the personal information of 44,000 customers. The data was later found to have been downloaded “inadvertently and without malicious intent”.

Commenting on the results of another 2014 survey, ESET’s senior research fellow David Harley agreed that insider threats shouldn’t always be assumed as malicious.

Mr. Harley said: “A very high proportion of security breaches are caused directly or indirectly by people inside an organization, whether it’s a matter of human error, susceptibility to social engineering, bad security management decisions, and so on. I’m not convinced that deliberate malicious action from insiders outweighs all those other factors.”

As the famous saying goes, “to err is human,” but that doesn’t mean you can’t work to prevent this kind of data leak. According to PWC’s 2015 survey, 33% of large organizations say the responsibility for ensuring data is protected is not clear, while 72% of organizations where security policy was poorly understood had suffered staff-related breaches.

Making sure that all employees are “cyber-aware” and that the responsibility of keeping networks secure doesn’t fall on just a few specialists will help keep costly mistakes to a bare minimum.

  1. Theft

As much as we’d like to tell you that data is only stolen by criminal outsiders, unfortunately theft from inside your business can happen as well. The UK’s communications regulator OFCOM learned this earlier this year when it was made aware that a former employee had been surreptitiously gathering its third party data over a six year period.

The regulatory body only learned of the data leak after the former employee tried to pass it on to his new employer, who alerted OFCOM to the nefarious activity.

No company likes to treat its employees with suspicion, but this kind of data leak can be prevented by steering clear of unnecessary risks. Where sensitive documents are involved, for instance, make sure you only to grant access to those who really need it. Storing all of your company’s data on one giant communal server is never a good idea.

  1. Access Misuse

Even when the intentions of employees are not malicious, seemingly minor actions can undermine IT network security and lead to data leaks.

According to a 2014 report by Cisco, approximately one fourth of surveyed employees admitted sharing sensitive information with friends, family, or even strangers, and almost half of the employees surveyed shared work devices with people outside of their companies without supervision.

These behaviours may seem ‘innocent’ enough, but it takes a company’s sensitive data outside of its control. Security settings and procedure can be introduced to limit this kind of activity, but even these kinds of measures can usually be bypassed.

Now that we’ve identified the three main data leak weak spots, you’re probably wondering what measures you can take to strengthen them? Check our recent post, Digital patch kit: How to protect yourself from data leaks, for all the practical guidance that your business needs.