Death, taxes and data breaches. Cybersecurity incidents have grown in frequency, scale and seriousness. As articulated in President Biden’s May 2021 Executive Order, Improving the Nation’s Cybersecurity, “[t]he United States faces persistent and increasingly sophisticated malicious cyber campaigns that threaten the public sector, the private sector, and ultimately the American people’s security and privacy.” These threats lead to direct costs on victims, and these costs have also grown exponentially in recent years, as readers of the famed annual Ponemon data breach report well know. This year’s report is out, and confirms the continuation of a troubling trend.

Sponsored by IBM Security, the Ponemon Institute studied over 500 data breaches from 17 different countries to provide an insightful look into the costs of data breaches, summarized in the “Cost of a Data Breach Report 2021.” An increase in remote work, combined with a slow uptake of security automation and modernized technologies, increased the overall costs of identifying and containing a data breach. In 2021, the average total cost of a data breach rose to $4.24 million. For the eleventh year in a row, healthcare organizations faced the highest costs of a breach at $9.23 million. The next closest industry was financial at $5.72 million.

The Report also tracks a number of other very interesting metrics. Not only did the average total cost increase, but the average number of days to contain a breach also increased to 287 days, seven days more than last year. Of those 287 days, 212 were spent identifying the breach and 75 were spent containing it. 20% of data breaches in 2021 occurred as a result of compromised credentials, followed closely by phishing (17%) and cloud misconfiguration (15%). While the compromise of business emails represented only 4% of breaches, such breaches were the costliest, at an average of $5.01 million.

This increase in costs could be due to the remote work environment caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. When a breach was caused, at least in part, by remote work, the average cost of a data breach was $1.07 million higher than breaches where remote work was not a factor. This uptick in cost for remote work could be attributed to a lack of needed technology improvements prompted by the pandemic. Companies that did not make such changes in response to the pandemic spent, on average, $750,000 more to respond to a data breach. Remote work had other negative effects. Being remote slowed the time it took to respond to a data breach—if an organization had more than 50% of its workforce working remotely, the organization took almost two months longer to identify and contain the breach.

The report reaffirmed the importance of several technology upgrades and security enhancements that can mitigate costs. The largest cost differential occurred between organizations with a fully deployed security automation system and organizations without any security automation deployed—a difference of $3.81 million, or 80%. As expected, an organization could detect and respond to a breach more quickly and more cheaply if they had fully deployed security AI.

Likewise, deploying zero trust, an approach that continuously validates users and connections based on an assumption that any user accessing the network may be compromised, greatly reduced the cost of an average data breach. Without zero trust deployed, organizations faced an average cost of $5.04 million, compared to $3.28 million for organizations with a mature stage of zero trust deployment. Of the organizations studied, only 35% had partially or fully deployed zero trust. Relatedly, organizations with a hybrid cloud model (as compared to a public or private cloud model) faced lower costs associated with a data breach.

Costs also greatly escalated if an organization failed to comply with regulatory burdens. Between organizations with a high level of compliance failures and organizations with a low level of compliance failures, costs were amplified by over 50%. These added costs included lawsuits and fines due to a lack of compliance.

Based on their findings, the authors of the report highlighted seven recommendations to minimize the costs of a data breach:

  • “Invest in security orchestration, automation and response (SOAR) to help improve detection and response times.”
  • “Adopt a zero trust security model to help prevent unauthorized access to sensitive data.”
  • “Stress test your incident response plan to increase cyber resilience.”
  • “Use tools that help protect and monitor endpoints and remote employees.”
  • “Invest in governance, risk management and compliance programs.”
  • “Embrace an open security architecture and minimize the complexity of IT and security environments.”
  • “Protect sensitive data in cloud environments using policy and encryption.”

Read the full report, more interesting facts, and details on their recommendations here.