Data Breach Versus Data Leak: What’s The Difference?

data breach vs data leak

Some terminology in the cybersecurity world can be slightly confusing. One example is the difference between two similar terms: data leak and data breach.

People sometimes use these terms interchangeably to describe situations where sensitive data is exposed. However, the difference between a data leak and a data breach is concrete in some ways. Knowing the difference between them helps organizations defend against either type of loss.

What is the Difference Between a Data Leak and Data Breach?

A data breach refers to unauthorized access or acquisition by an external party, often resulting from a cyberattack or security breach. A data leak is the accidental release or exposure of sensitive information due to internal errors or negligence. While a data breach is intentional, a data leak is typically accidental and can arise from various sources, such as misconfigured databases or human error.

What is a Data Leak?

A data leak is any situation in which sensitive data is exposed improperly. This covers everything from certain types of malicious attacks to accidental situations where someone mistakenly sends sensitive information to a large group of people who weren’t really authorized to see it.

In other words, data leaks can result from intentional hacking or simple errors.

Despite their accidental nature and lack of ill intent, data leaks can inflict significant damage on a business. For instance, a sensitive document mistakenly sent to an unauthorized group or an app erroneously publishing private items can lead to severe repercussions. This underscores the importance of comprehensive cybersecurity measures.

What is a Data Breach?

A data breach is more specific. In a data breach, sensitive data gets exposed due to a cyberattack.

Experts classify data breaches based on the type of attack vector used and who perpetrated the attack.

For example, there are two main types of data breaches. Data breaches stem from an outside third-party threat actor or data breaches caused by insider threats or those associated with the organization.

  • Insider threats can be further classified into three categories: malicious attacks, negligent attacks, and recruiting situations.
  • A malicious insider threat attack occurs when a disgruntled employee, contractor, or insider causes a data breach independently.
  • A negligent attack is when a data breach occurs due to the carelessness of an insider. For example, an external hacker who can breach a system using an employee’s weak and repeated password qualifies this type of attack as a negligent insider attack.
  • The third kind of attack, a recruitment attack, involves outside hackers enticing insiders—employees or contractors—to help them attack a network and steal data.

Data breaches aren’t accidental. They always carry malicious intent. For example, if somebody mistakenly left sensitive data out and an unauthorized party was able to access it, this type of event would be considered a data leak but would not be qualified as a data breach.

Cases of accidental loss without any hacking are not considered data breaches.

Examples of Data Leaks

By examining specific examples of data leaks, business leaders can better understand how to prevent them.

  • One of the first kinds of data leaks is the ‘reply all’ situation we referred to above. In this situation, someone attaches a sensitive document and accidentally sends it to the wrong parties. This can happen with email, but it can also happen on many other digital platforms.
  • Another major category of data leaks is ‘data dumps’ – when a poorly set up application or human error publishes sensitive data without knowing it. The data is available for all to see, no hacking needs to be done, and the leak was accidental.
  • Another category of data leak involves physical loss, like when papers or flash drives are left lying around.
  • Then, there are cases where sensitive data shows up in the background, such as when people take pictures with their cameras and accidentally capture sensitive data in images or videos that go public.

Examples of Events Causing Data Breaches

Threat actors use different attack vectors and threat events to breach systems and steal data. Knowing about some of the major ones can help in brainstorming defense strategies.

Ransomware attacks are a popular way of extracting value from stolen data. Hackers steal valuable data and hold it for ransom, assuming the business doesn’t have the backups it needs to avoid severe disruptions. One of the reasons that ransomware is so scary is that black hats offer “ransomware-as-a-service” applications, allowing anyone to become a data hijacker quite quickly.

Social engineering attacks target people as the weakest link in the system. Hackers will try to deceive internal users into handing over sensitive information or account information and then use the information they’re given to get inside the network. If they can’t do that, they might use credential stuffing, where brute force attacks try to guess people’s passwords and get into the network that way. They may also use Trojans, worms, or other malware to compromise the system or breach servers through complicated technical cyberattacks.

There’s also endpoint vulnerability and dangers from insecure applications. Endpoint vulnerability refers to hacks that take place at the edges of a network, where individual users get access. For example, if the hacking occurs at a user’s workstation with a remote desktop attack, that’s an endpoint attack. As for insecure applications, hackers can use third-party apps to pass code to the interior of a network, which can be dangerous.

This illustrates how data breaches can happen through deliberate cyberattacks from outside parties or can be perpetrated via insiders. Knowing how these attacks work helps the effort to harden systems and seal out problematic black hat activity.

The Threat of Shadow IT

One of the overarching threats in terms of both data leaks and data breaches is a phenomenon called ‘shadow IT if backdoors and applications are not so secure around that system, ‘shadow IT‘ where system vulnerabilities or less controlled components of networks lurk in the background of a system.

This is the basic idea: a business might have customer-facing apps that are tightly controlled. The firm might have a good core network and safe customer interaction methods. Still, if backdoors and applications are not so secure around that system, that’s a problem! If these outside apps have access to the same parts of the network, their security must be up to par, too. Looking effectively at shadow IT is one aspect of dealing with this full range of data breaches that threaten companies.

How to Prevent Data Breaches and Data Leaks

As for how to circle the wagons against both scenarios, the most basic answer involves better cybersecurity, data loss prevention tools, and insider threat software.

Companies have to up the ante when it comes to protecting their networks, endpoints, and the valuable data inside. They have to throw resources at the problem to ensure they have things covered. Security has to go beyond the perimeter and into the core of the network, with things like network segmentation, better identity and access management, and hardened systems with encryption, just to name a few.

All of these things have one thing in common: they relate to the necessity of better planning. Companies must be more deliberate in how they shield themselves from these kinds of threats.

Attention to standards is another significant component. The NIST recommends using its ‘cybersecurity framework’ to establish a standard for cybersecurity and teach companies how to keep their networks and data safe.

Then, there are next-generation, cutting-edge endpoint monitoring tools and user behavior analytics that work to defend against both data breaches and data leaks.

New types of endpoint monitoring and User Entity and Behavior Analytics (UEBA) tools allow cybersecurity professionals to track behaviors and look for abnormal behaviors that indicate insider threats. Robust endpoint monitoring tools take data breach and data leak prevention further by monitoring all user activity, including remote desktop sessions. These powerful tools can often spot the endpoint or network activity that leads to a data threat.

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What is the difference between data loss and data leakage?

Data loss refers to the unintentional loss or destruction of data, often due to a hardware failure or human error. On the other hand, data leakage refers to the unauthorized or accidental exposure of data, potentially caused by a breach in security measures or malicious activities.

What is the difference between a data breach and a data hack?

A data breach refers to an individual or entity’s unauthorized access, acquisition, or exposure of sensitive data. On the other hand, a data hack involves explicitly the intentional and malicious activities carried out by hackers to gain unauthorized access to a system or network and steal or manipulate data.

What is the difference between data breach and data exposure?

A data breach refers to the unauthorized access, acquisition, or exposure of sensitive data. In contrast, data exposure refers explicitly to the accidental or unintentional exposure of data, typically due to security vulnerabilities or human error. Both can compromise sensitive information. Still, data breaches are often associated with intentional and unauthorized activities, whereas data exposure is more often the result of negligence or oversight.

Is a data breach the same as data loss?

No, data breach and data loss are not the same. Data breach refers to unauthorized access or exposure of sensitive data, while data loss refers to the unintentional loss or destruction of data.

What are the three 3 kinds of data breach?

The three types of data breaches are insider, external, and accidental. Insider breaches involve authorized individuals who misuse their access to data, while external attackers carry out external breaches. Accidental breaches occur when data is unintentionally exposed or lost due to human error or system vulnerabilities.

What is considered a data leak?

A data leak is the unauthorized or accidental exposure of sensitive data, often caused by security vulnerabilities or human error. It can compromise personal information or confidential data, posing a significant risk to individuals or organizations.

What is another name for a data leak?

Another name for a data leak is a data spill or information disclosure.

Are data leaks illegal?

Data leaks are often considered illegal as they involve the unauthorized disclosure or exposure of sensitive information, which violates privacy laws and regulations. Individuals or organizations responsible for data leaks may face legal consequences and penalties.

How serious is a data leak?

A data leak is a serious cybersecurity incident because it can compromise personal information or confidential data, leading to potential identity theft, financial loss, and reputational damage. Immediate action is necessary to mitigate the impact of a data leak and protect individuals and organizations from further harm.


Knowing the difference between a data leak and a data breach helps professionals understand the cybersecurity landscape and what companies face regarding data loss. It also helps them classify problems and threats and apply solutions precisely and reasonably.

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