Data Exfiltration: Risks, Detection & Prevention Strategies
Data Security

Data Exfiltration: Risks, Detection & Prevention Strategies

Companies today face a wide range of potential threats to digital security. From cyber attacks with malicious intent to internal threats from negligent employees, IT and security teams face remarkable challenges in the modern enterprise environment. Add to the equation that many companies now operate under a hybrid model in which some employees may use personal devices for work purposes, and it’s exceedingly complicated to establish ironclad security policies and incident response plans.

One of the chief risks organizations must contend with is data exfiltration attacks – by insiders or external hackers. These are perpetrated by employees with access to trade secrets or intellectual property who use their legitimate user credentials to move data to personal devices or other external servers or devices. Data exfiltration can deliver trade secrets to a competitor, cause a regulatory violation, or lead an organization into financial or reputational harm. 

These incidents have increased in frequency by 39% in the past year, so organizations must have a plan to avoid data exfiltration.

What is Data Exfiltration?

Data exfiltration is simply the movement of company data outside the company, beyond a control server, with proper security protections and protocols. Bad actors may use exfiltrated data immediately or become vulnerable to external attackers.

Every company has proprietary information. From client data to sales strategies and more, corporate networks are full of essential data companies want to protect. External attackers may levy phishing or ransomware attacks to steal that data, but data exfiltration is slightly less exciting.

How Data Exfiltration Affects Your Organization

Data exfiltration can harm your organization in several ways.

  • The exposure of sensitive data could lead to a ransomware attack, forcing your organization to pay to recover customer data, intellectual property, or trade secrets.
  • A security breach can lead to significant fines and potential financial fallout if the exposed data leads to a competitor gaining an edge or stockholders losing confidence in the company.
  • The reputational damage of a security breach is sometimes the most challenging to recover from.
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How Does Data Exfiltration Happen?

There are many types of insider threats and data exfiltration methods. Malicious insider threats could carry out exfiltration efforts or may happen due to sheer employee negligence. Moving data from a secure place to a less secure one is straightforward, complicating exfiltration prevention.

Unintentional Exfiltration by Employees

Rather than blunt external attacks, an internal threat actor or negligent employee may simply move data from corporate cloud services to a personal mobile device. An insecure device that lacks the same security controls as a corporate one may become the target of a cyberattack, thereby exposing company data.

A typical insider threat example is employees using easy-to-hack passwords on their personal subscriptions and profiles, only for that cracked password to allow unprivileged access to professional files.

Intentional Malicious Insider

A malicious insider threat may choose to attack their employer for financial gains or as an act of retribution. A disgruntled or compromised company insider with access to source code, physical access to servers, or login credentials for sensitive systems is a significant security threat to an organization. For example, an employee moonlighting for a competitor might export customer data to help their new company steal customers from your company.

With valid user credentials and legitimate access to critical assets, exfiltration efforts may be straightforward for a malicious insider.

Hackers Gain Access to Target Machines

External attacks take many forms, from phishing to social engineering. Many seek to exploit or manipulate insiders, but sometimes hackers simply gain access to company resources with malicious code.

Over a period of time, they can exfiltrate data to external servers without being detected.

Cloud Apps and Databases

One of the most persistent threats that organizations face is the security of third-party vendors and services. If you have a range of employees, contractors, and third-party users accessing cloud services and apps, it can be more challenging to assess potential threats properly.

With many users uploading, downloading, and moving data around corporate databases and cloud services, some exfiltration may get overlooked.

Exfiltration of Data Through Removable Storage Media

One of the most common data exfiltration techniques is simply loading data onto a thumb drive and walking out of the building.

Many executives who were poached by competitors or left companies to find their own have gotten into trouble for exfiltrating data from their original companies and using it to further their ambitions. The insider threat example of Uber vs. Google remains one of the most prominent examples of this method.

Email Data Exfiltration

An outbound email from a negligent employee is a common form of data exfiltration. The employee may send a valuable file to a personal device to work on at home or share it with someone outside the organization for feedback or advice. This common form of data exfiltration is usually an innocent mistake, but it can nonetheless have significant consequences.

How to Prevent Data Exfiltration

Preventing data exfiltration requires complete organizational buy-in. Using an employee monitoring solution and ensuring employees have the proper security training and awareness will help create a secure culture of accountability. A solution like Teramind offers robust insider threat detection tools and employee monitoring solutions to build a stronger, more secure workplace.

User Activity Monitoring

Monitoring what your employees are working on isn’t just a good cybersecurity practice; it’s a smart way to incentivize performance and improve productivity. Regarding data exfiltration, user activity monitoring keeps real-time tabs on in-office and remote employees’ work

You don’t have to monitor every little click employees make (in fact, you probably shouldn’t if you want to build trust). However, you can set up smart automated alerts with employee monitoring software to let you know when data exfiltration occurs. You can mark it as acceptable or take action immediately as soon as it happens. You can leverage remote desktop control (RDP) to stop exfiltration in real-time.

Use a Data Loss Prevention Solution

Data Loss Prevention (DLP) is the security practice of preventing data breaches, exfiltration, or unwanted destruction. With a DLP solution, you can monitor potential threats and mitigate exfiltration incidents before they occur. Not only will a DLP solution help prevent data exfiltration, but it can also avoid compliance violations.

Teramind offers robust DLP that leverages machine learning to learn employee work patterns actively, recognize abnormal behavior, and alert you before fraud, negligence, or other misconduct occurs.

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Implement Insider Threat Detection Software

Insider threat detection software provides robust, real-time, always-on analysis of security threats. With automated incident response and contextual user monitoring, security teams will have insight into suspicious user activity and a greater ability to prevent intentional and unintentional data exfiltration. Monitoring remote desktops is also easier this way.

Insider threat software can intercept suspicious email activity, block outbound emails containing sensitive data, prohibit file uploads to vulnerable external servers or personal devices, monitor app usage, prevent file transfers via Slack/Teams, and much more. With intelligent risk assessment, security leaders can actively monitor potentially risky individual behavior, identify emerging security incidents, and patch up vulnerable systems.

Endpoint Detection & Response Solutions

Every device connecting to your corporate network represents a new endpoint for data to originate or be stored. Your employees may have varying levels of cybersecurity proficiency, meaning data stored on personal devices may be particularly vulnerable.

Endpoint detection and response solutions provide a centralized dashboard to monitor devices on the network. With user activity monitoring and intelligent risk assessment, such solutions can permit security teams to step in as security incidents emerge. Solutions may include file transfer and endpoint monitoring, keystroke logging, website monitoring, and more features to identify potentially risky activity on dispersed devices.

Access Management & Authentication

Strong access management and authentication are among the most critical components of any corporate security policy. Two-factor authentication is now standard at large companies and is required at 87% of companies with over 10,000 employees. Smaller organizations, however, need more robust access management and authentication solutions.

Employee monitoring solutions can help implement strong access management and authentication protocols that ensure only those with the correct privileges can access the most valuable and sensitive assets. 

With a centralized system, security teams can control access privileges, properly authenticate users and devices attempting to access the network, and receive real-time alerts of suspicious activity. The system will also help employees develop better habits about changing passwords and investing in company security.

Continuous Monitoring & Incident Response

Insider threat detection software and monitoring solutions are a good first step, but any organization requires a continuous monitoring and incident response strategy. To reiterate the previous section, continuous validation is an excellent way to thoroughly vet access privileges and prevent illegitimate access to sensitive systems.

Through continuous monitoring and setting up thorough incident response protocols, your security team will know exactly what to do in any data exfiltration or security incident. Getting the entire organization’s buy-in and trust will also go a long way toward a successful continuous monitoring and incident response program.


What is the difference between data breach and data exfiltration?

A data breach refers to the unauthorized access to sensitive data, whereas data exfiltration focuses explicitly on the unauthorized removal or extraction of that data from a network or system. While a data breach involves gaining access to data, data exfiltration involves the intentional or unintentional transfer of that data outside its intended location or network.

What does exfiltrate mean in cyber security?

Cybersecurity data exfiltration refers to the unauthorized removal or extraction of sensitive data from a network or system. It involves the intentional or unintentional data transfer to a destination outside its intended location.

What is an example of data exfiltration?

An example of data exfiltration is when a malicious actor gains access to a company’s network and extracts sensitive customer information, such as credit card numbers or personal data. They may then sell this data on the dark web for financial gain or use it for other illegal activities.

Another typical example is due to negligence. An employee may simply transfer a file from a secure location to an insecure personal device, thereby making the file more vulnerable to external attackers.

How do you mitigate data exfiltration?

Organizations can implement security measures such as data encryption, network monitoring, and access controls to mitigate data exfiltration. Conducting regular employee training and awareness programs and implementing data loss prevention solutions can also help prevent and detect unauthorized data transfers.

How can we detect and prevent data exfiltration?

Organizations can employ advanced security measures such as data loss prevention (DLP) solutions, network monitoring, and encryption techniques to detect and prevent data exfiltration. Regular employee training and awareness programs can also play a crucial role in identifying and mitigating unauthorized data transfers.

What is the most common type of data exfiltration?

The most common type of data exfiltration is through email transmission, where attackers or negligent actors send sensitive information to external recipients. Malicious insider threat actors may disguise these emails as legitimate communications to bypass security measures. Regular employee training and implementing email security solutions can help mitigate this risk.

What are the signs of data exfiltration?

Signs of data exfiltration include unusual network activity, large data transfers to unknown destinations, unexpected system slowdowns, and unauthorized access to sensitive files. Monitoring network traffic, implementing intrusion detection systems, and conducting regular security audits can help detect and prevent data exfiltration.

Is data exfiltration a threat?

Data exfiltration is a significant threat to organizations as it involves the unauthorized removal of sensitive data, putting it at risk of misuse or exploitation. Implementing security measures and monitoring regularly is crucial to detect and prevent data exfiltration attempts.

What is another word for data exfiltration?

Another word for data exfiltration is data leakage, which refers to the unauthorized transfer of sensitive information from an organization’s network. Implementing security measures and monitoring regularly can help prevent data leakage and protect valuable data.

What is the opposite of exfiltration?

The opposite of data exfiltration is data infiltration. While data exfiltration involves the unauthorized removal of sensitive information, data infiltration refers to unauthorized access and insertion of data into a network. Preventing data exfiltration and data infiltration requires robust security measures and regular monitoring.


Data exfiltration incidents increased by 39% in 2023 over the previous year. Data exfiltration can significantly affect an organization, whether through employee negligence or intentional attacks. Implementing insider threat detection software, monitoring user activity, and instituting robust employee training protocols can help avoid financial or reputational fallout or the unnecessary exposure of sensitive data.