For a company, a data breach can seem like it comes out of the blue. Yet, according to analysis by the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC), the three primary causes of data breaches have remained the same since 2009:

  • Hacking
  • Data on the move
  • Insider theft

ITRC has been releasing an annual Breach Report since 2007. For the first time, hacking outpaced all other triggers to account for just more than a quarter of the 419 breaches in 2011. Incidents of hacking rose from 17.1% in 2010 and, the previous high, 19.5% in 2009 to 25.8% in 2011.

Data on the move* was the second highest trigger, accounting for 18.1% of the breaches in 2011. Insider theft, falling slightly from 2010, caused 13.4% of the breaches as the third trigger. ITRC further counts hacking and insider theft together as a malicious attack, adding up to nearly 40% of breaches in 2011.

The numbers make it clear that companies can’t rely on one form of data breach prevention alone. The 2011 Breach Report further illustrates that no company is immune. Of the entities reporting data breaches, 47% fell into the business category. Both business and educational entities experienced an upswing in data loss incidents in 2011.

The report also considers government/military, financial/credit and health/medical entities, the third of which accounted for 20.5% of the breaches in 2011.

Among the more alarming findings is that 61.6% of the reported breaches in 2011 exposed Social Security numbers (SSN), one of the most valuable pieces of personal data an individual has. Such exposure can leave a consumer vulnerable to identity theft indefinitely. Individuals can’t easily exchange their SSN for a new number like they can with credit or debit cards. (Loss of credit and debit card data was a factor in 26.5% of incidents in 2011.)

Drawing on what’s known about how breaches occur, companies can plan ahead to prevent and respond to incidents in order to protect themselves and the consumer data they use and collect. A comprehensive prevention and response plan should account for all of the various ways, including accidental exposure and subcontractor loss, that breaches occur.

Staying aware of vulnerabilities can only help companies strengthen their defense. Data breaches are here to stay, so there’s no time like the present to take prevention and preparation seriously.

*“Data on the move” refers to data that has left its usual place of rest, i.e. its proper storage place. This includes data in transport to a new storage location as well as data that has left an office on an electronic drive, a mobile device or paper.