What is Data Exfiltration?

Data Exfiltration is a type of cyberattack involving the illegal transfer of your data from your network without your knowledge, often using malware or threat actors as perpetrators.

Disgruntled employees may also pose a threat, saving sensitive data onto insecure devices like phones, laptops, cameras, or external hard drives - potentially putting your business at risk and losing essential information.

Downloads to Insecure Devices

No matter how cyber attackers gain entry to an organization, their aim is often data extraction and leakage - often used to steal from businesses, harm their reputations or expose customer records. This practice is known as data exfiltration or leakage and poses a substantial security threat; organizations should therefore take measures to safeguard their networks against it.

Cyberattacks typically launch cyber-attacks via the internet or local networks. However, compromised hosts or devices such as smartphones, cameras, external drives, or smart speakers may also provide an entryway for attackers to conduct their attacks. Such devices typically feature limited security controls and can easily become available for access by cybercriminals or lost or misplaced by their owners.

Data Exfiltration

Advanced persistent threats (APTs), often called stealth malware, are designed to remain undetected for as long as possible while quietly gathering data and collecting user credentials, intellectual property, or consumer data from companies' networks. Once this data is stolen by hackers using malware, infiltrating a company network, and exfiltrating it onto servers under their control, it could be sold or published.

An increasingly prevalent method for exfiltrating data is through unauthorized downloads to unsecured devices, whether by an attacker or due to security system vulnerabilities that make data easy to steal. A phishing attack, for instance, might target employees and convince them to download files onto unprotected smartphones that can then be used to access data from within their organization or spoofed by malicious third parties and sent elsewhere.

Security teams may find it challenging to detect this kind of activity when perpetrated by an authorized employee; nonetheless, only appropriate users must gain access to sensitive data and are continuously monitored for changes in behavior. A next-generation firewall (NGFW) equipped with industry-leading features like Fortinet's NGFWs provides additional protection from attacks in such instances, such as intrusion prevention system (IPS), SSL inspection, and web filtering as solutions against such threats.

Uploads to Third-Party Servers

A serious threat to both business profitability and the integrity of sensitive data, according to BlackFog's State of Ransomware Report 2022, almost 9 out of 10 ransomware attacks utilize data exfiltration techniques as one or more attack tactics.

Once inside an organization's network, hackers can remain undetected for prolonged periods while searching for valuable data to steal and then uploading it onto an external FTP or cloud storage platform - providing a way for attackers to avoid detection by covering up file transfer processes with legitimate network traffic.

These activities may also closely resemble real-time network activity, making it difficult to differentiate between legitimate and unauthorized data transfers. This can present companies that must adhere to stringent privacy regulations like GDPR or California Consumer Privacy Act with an additional challenge: Research has indicated that it can take up to 277 days before breaches are detected - potentially leaving sensitive data vulnerable to exfiltration.

Cybercriminals use sophisticated data exfiltration techniques such as anonymizing server connections, DNS tunneling, HTTP and HTTPS tunneling, direct IP addresses, and file-less attacks to gain access to company data. They may even employ social engineering and phishing tactics to encourage employees unknowingly expose company records.

Although most data breaches are caused by malicious actors, human error still plays a vital role. When employees work remotely, they may upload company data onto websites and cloud services not approved by IT departments - which can prove dangerous if these outside systems are located in regions with high levels of cyber-attacks.

Organizations should prioritize protecting data, systems, and users against security attacks without compromising performance or productivity. This means implementing an intelligent automated solution capable of quickly detecting risky behaviors and quickly responding to data exfiltration attempts.

Transmittal over Insecure Channels

Data exfiltration occurs when an attacker moves data from secure environments into private systems that are not protected by corporate security solutions or policies, typically for theft of source code, email messages and drafts, calendar data, images, and business forecasts. Exfiltration over insecure channels such as smartphones, cameras, laptops, or external drives, as well as misconfigured cloud storage resources or unapproved third-party servers that hackers might be accessing, is usually carried out this way.

Even with USB drives slowly becoming part of computer history, they remain a primary means of an accidental insider threat or malware-facilitated data exfiltration. Malicious insider threats with elevated access are at increased risk of conducting this sort of activity that is difficult to detect without specialized software and advanced user and device behavior analytics (UEBA).

Attackers frequently employ this tactic as it provides a fast and straightforward means of exfiltrating data to an unknown environment. Threat actors could download existing files from a service, copy data into new files, or set up an unauthorized service on behalf of their company - making the entire exfiltration difficult to detect because it often occurs over time in numerous smaller events.

For effective data loss protection, compartmentalization and granular permissions are the answer. Only allow access to sensitive systems if required, and implement cybersecurity awareness training alongside dedicated insider threat management solutions which warn employees in real-time if there's a risk of breach.

An unhappy employee can pose serious insider threats that compromise sensitive data. Recently at Tesla, one employee altered code in their manufacturing operating system to transfer confidential files containing video of car production and customer records to third parties in response to not receiving a promotion. A free user and device behavior analytics (UEBA) solution such as Blumira may help prevent data leaks by learning patterns of users and devices and alerting teams if any behaviors deviate from expected norms.

Unauthorized Access

Data exfiltration occurs when hackers gain unauthorized access to sensitive information without the consent of its owner and then transfer it onto an unprotected external drive, mobile phone, laptop or desktop PC, cloud storage service provider, or software-as-a-service provider - potentially even through emails with malware attached that prompt users to open and download an attachment, for instance. This type of attack can quickly steal company systems of information.

Careless insider threats can be just as dangerous for a company's data as disgruntled or malicious employees because they unwittingly violate security controls or policies by sending sensitive files to personal email accounts, cloud storage services, printers, or other non-secure sites. Unfortunately, such violations often go undetected as these actions appear legitimate business activities conducted using authorized devices.

Hybrid or remote work technologies also increase the risk of data exfiltration by making it easier for employees to remove sensitive information from the organization's secure locations. McAfee estimates that employees send files outside their company networks via email, cloud storage services, USB drives, keyboard shortcuts, or communication apps an average of six to 34 times daily.

Unauthorized access to a company's computer systems or software could come from hackers looking for entry through vulnerabilities like weak passwords or lack of multi-factor authentication and phishing or through accidental breaches from authorized personnel who discover unprotected files they were not supposed to see.

Even after an attack is successful and a malicious actor gains access to a company's system, they must move swiftly to secure the data efficiently. This may involve increasing privileges or moving information across systems until it can be transferred outside the network - then sold on dark web markets or used for further attacks. Unfortunately, detecting this kind of activity may be challenging since such malicious actors often use legitimate tools such as HTTP for this activity and have constant exposure to attacker infrastructure for other purposes.

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