Data Exfiltration: Most Common Techniques and Best Prevention Tactics

Incidents of data exfiltration can have devastating consequences for any business. Learn about the most common data exfiltration techniques and discover the best security practices for organizations seeking to keep their data out of unauthorized hands.

By Diana
4 min read

When cybercriminals target organizations, the goal is usually to exfiltrate information for competitive, disruptive or monetary gain. Infiltrating a network or a device is not enough to make an attack successful; that only happens if the attackers successfully steal or remove data from the system.

Data exfiltration can occur in several ways, but no matter what form it takes, it creates severe consequences for businesses in any industry. Failing to mitigate against data exfiltration and exercise as many preventative measures as possible can lead to:

  • loss of intellectual property and other sensitive information
  • expensive incident response processes
  • information misuse or abuse
  • violation of industry standards and regulations
  • lawsuits and other legal issues
  • reputational damage

Most Common Data Exfiltration Techniques

1. Social Engineering and Phishing Attacks

Phishing emails are one of the major vectors of choice for bad actors to distribute malware and exfiltrate data. Using deceptive, manipulative social engineering techniques, attackers make their emails look legitimate and appear to be from trusted senders. Users are then more likely to click on a link or download an attachment that actually exposes the organization’s system to some malicious tool or malware.

In other cases, attackers might launch targeted phishing attacks to steal credentials from a specific user, such as senior company executives. Once they’ve tricked the user into providing their credentials, the attackers can use these credentials to take over the account, gain insider access, and ultimately exfiltrate data.

2. Outbound Mail

Through this method, attackers transmit sensitive data from secure computers to insecure private systems using authorized telecommunications infrastructures, such as company phones or business email accounts. The data can be attached as a file or transmitted as a text message or plain text email. This technique is most often used to steal source code, calendar data, images, business forecasts, databases, and company emails.

In addition, many email and messaging platforms automatically save drafts to the cloud. This means that someone who has outside access to their business email or other messaging service that supports saved drafts can exfiltrate information using that feature.

3. Downloads to Insecure Devices

These scenarios occur when a user accesses information through an authorized channel and moves the data to an insecure local device. For example, someone can use cameras, computers, smartphones, or other specialized devices to capture data for exfiltration, either downloading existing files from cloud services or copying the information into new files. Any files transferred to an insecure device are at high risk for data exfiltration.

4. Uploads to External Services

Like the previous technique, this method usually includes downloading sensitive information to local infrastructure. A user then uploads that data to a third party through a web browser client or some other unmonitored software. The third-party service could seem harmless, such as a social network, where someone could accidentally paste the wrong text or upload the wrong image.

5. Insecure Cloud Behavior

Cloud services introduce additional exfiltration risks to be aware of, including cases where employees or administrators use features of the provider in insecure ways. Any actor with the ability to deploy code, modify virtual machines (VMs), or make requests to cloud storage has the potential to exfiltrate data. Also, actors with sufficient permissions can transmit data from secure containers to insecure ones, or create unauthorized services on the company’s behalf.

How to Prevent Data Exfiltration

To prevent data exfiltration, companies must identify and mitigate potential risks without harming user productivity. Anything less can leave them exposed.

Detect and Stop Phishing Attacks

Phishing is a successful means of attack because cybercriminals know how to take advantage of human error and how to bypass insufficient security solutions. The best way to protect against email threats is to detect and stop fraudulent emails before they reach employee inboxes. Machine-intelligent email security solutions can learn from and understand the local context, communication relationships and behavior patterns within an organization. They can identify any subtle deviations from typical behavior and stop targeted, social engineered attacks that traditional email security systems fail to detect.

Deploy Data Loss Prevention (DLP) Strategies

Data loss prevention (DLP) is a set of business policies and technologies designed to ensure end-users cannot send sensitive or confidential data outside the organization. This type of system scans all outbound emails, monitoring them for pre-determined patterns that might indicate a person is transmitting sensitive information, such as a credit card number or social security numbers. Depending on the policy, if an email contains text that matches this format, the program automatically encrypts the data or blocks it from being sent.

Disable Unauthorized Channels and Protocols

It’s essential for an organization to keep track of which users have access to their sensitive data, revoking access to any partner or employee after terminating a business relationship with them. Allowing someone to keep access even for one more day could lead to a security breach with severe productivity, reputational, or monetary consequences.

Implement Backup and Data Encryption Processes

If a security breach occurs, it is vital to be prepared and frequently back up all data so it’s available for quick restoration. Failing to regularly back up data can lead to significant loss, should the worst happen. Data backup is a cybersecurity standard requirement.

In addition, establishing encryption policies helps keep data safe while in transit. Cybercriminals cannot intercept or tamper with encrypted messages. Once confidential data is transformed into ciphertext, it needs a unique key to be unlocked.

Educate Employees

Finally, organizations need to minimize the risk of human error. Employees can make mistakes that attackers can leverage to their advantage. A user could unsuspectingly download an infected malware file, transmit their credentials through a phishing campaign, or otherwise neglect to secure their personal computer or other devices.

It is essential to regularly train and educate employees on the latest security measures to avoid human error. For example, organizations should ensure that each person understands how to identify a suspicious email. They should also make sure employees know how to report a suspicious email so the security team can investigate and take any necessary action right away.

When machines and people work together, enterprises can keep their data safe and secure.

If you’re looking to protect your organization against data exfiltration, xorlab ActiveGuard can help. Get a look at how the solution can work for you with a free demo.