Data breaches

Not all data breaches are created equal – do you know the difference?

Impact to a company during and after a breach varies greatly depending on the type of data, quantity and applicable regulations

documents flying
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It was one of those typical, cold February winter days in Indianapolis earlier this year. Kids woke up hoping for a snow day and old men groaned as they scraped ice off their windshields and shoveled the driveway. Those were the lucky ones, because around that same time, executives at Anthem were pulling another all-nighter, trying to wrap their heads around their latest data breach of 37.5 million records and figuring out what to do next. And, what do they do next? This was bad – very bad – and one wonders if one or more of the frenzied executives thought to him of herself, or even aloud, “At least we’re not Sony.”

Why is that? 37.5 million records sure is a lot. A large-scale data breach can be devastating to a company. Expenses associated with incident response, forensics, loss of productivity, credit reporting, and customer defection add up swiftly on top of intangible costs, such as reputation harm and loss of shareholder confidence. However, not every data breach is the same and much of this has to do with the type of data that is stolen.

Let’s take a look at the three most common data types that cyber criminals often target. Remember that almost any conceivable type of data can be stolen, but if it doesn’t have value, it will often be discarded. Cyber criminals are modern day bank robbers. They go where the money is.

Common data classifications and examplesCommon data classifications and examples

Customer financial data

This category is the most profuse and widespread in terms of the number of records breached, and mostly includes credit card numbers, expiration dates, cardholder names, and other similar data. Cyber criminals generally pillage this information from retailers in bulk by utilizing malware specifically written to copy the credit card number at the point-of-sale system when a customer swipes his or her card. This is the type of attack that was used against Target, Home Depot, Neiman-Marcus and many others, and incidents such as these have dominated the news for the last several years. Banks have also been attacked for information on customers.

When cyber criminals then attempt to sell this pilfered information on the black market, they are in a race against time – they need to close the deal as quickly as possible so the buyer is able to use it before the card is deactivated by the issuing bank. A common method of laundering funds is to use the stolen cards to purchase gift cards or pre-paid credit cards, which can then be redeemed for cash, sold, or spent on goods and services. Cardholder data is typically peddled in bulk and can go for as little as $1 per number.

Companies typically incur costs associated with response, outside firms’ forensic analysis, and credit reporting for customers, but so far, a large-scale customer defection or massive loss of confidence by shareholders has not been observed. However, Target did fire its CEO after the breach, so internal shake-ups are always a stark possibility.

Personally identifiable information

Personally Identifiable Information, also known as PII, is a more serious form of data breach, as those affected are impacted far beyond the scope of a replaceable credit card. PII is information that identifies an individual, such as name, address, date of birth, driver’s license number, or Social Security number, and is exactly what cyber criminals need to commit identity theft. Lines of credit can be opened, tax refunds redirected, Social Security claims filed – essentially, the possibilities of criminal activities are endless, much like the headache of the one whose information has been breached.

Unlike credit cards, which can be deactivated and the customer reimbursed, one’s identity cannot be changed or begun anew. When a fraudster gets a hold of PII, the unlucky soul whose identity was stolen will often struggle for years with the repercussions, from arguing with credit reporting agencies to convincing bill collectors that they did not open lines of credit accounts.

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