What is Data Leakage?

Narendran Vaideeswaran - February 16, 2024

Data leakage refers to the unauthorized transfer of data from inside an organization to an external destination. It can involve all types of data, from non-sensitive and innocuous data to highly confidential information. The leakage may be intentional (as a result of malicious behavior) or unintentional (as a result of human error/lack of training).

IT and security teams must understand how data leakage directly impacts the safety and integrity of their organizations’ data assets. In this post, we’ll explore the concept of data leakage — its causes, its impacts, and strategies for preventing it. We’ll close by looking at how modern cybersecurity tools help protect organizations from the dangers of data leakage.

Data leakage may be intentional or unintentional

When data is transmitted — without authorization — from within an organization to an external entity, the incident might be intentional. In this scenario, a person deliberately exposes or shares sensitive information. Examples of how intentional data leakage might occur include:

  • Espionage: An employee might exfiltrate confidential company information and sell it to a competitor or foreign government to benefit themselves or an external organization.
  • Disgruntled employee: An employee might leak sensitive data about their organization as a form of retaliation.
  • Whistleblowing: An individual might leak information to expose wrongdoing or illegal activity within their organization.
  • Social engineering: An individual might have been manipulated to gain access to and leak sensitive information.

This is not an exhaustive list of examples, and it’s easy to conceive of other reasons why an organization might experience intentional data leakage. However, unintentional data leakage is also a possibility:

  • Misdirected email: An employee may accidentally send an email containing sensitive information to the wrong recipient.
  • Copy/paste mistakes: An individual may inadvertently copy and paste sensitive data into a public digital space (for example, generative AI tools like ChatGPT).
  • Misconfigured cloud storage: Incorrectly configured cloud storage permissions may make private data accessible to unauthorized users or the public.
  • Phishing scams: A victim may be the target of a phishing scam, unwittingly handing over sensitive information to cybercriminals.

Data leakage can occur for a variety of reasons, both intentional and unintentional. And data leakage isn’t confined to digital assets — data can also be leaked through misplaced (or stolen) hard-copy documents or even verbal conversations.

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How data leakage occurs

Although we’ve covered some of the motivations behind data leakage, let’s consider the factors that might contribute to data leakage. By understanding the causes of data leakagese factors, your organization can be clear on which ones can be mitigated through more robust cybersecurity measures.

Here’s a breakdown of common causes:

  • Human error: An employee commits a human error such as sending an email to the wrong person or pasting a password into a social media post. In cases like these, there are few technical controls an organization can put in place to prevent these simple mistakes.
  • System vulnerabilities: Weaknesses in software or hardware can be exploited to access unauthorized data.
  • Inadequate security policies: When security policies governing network traffic, data protection, and user access controls are lacking or incorrectly established, an organization’s data is left unprotected.
  • Insider threats: A company insider — such as an employee or associate with access to sensitive information — intentionally or unintentionally leaks data.
  • External attacks: Cyberattackers use sophisticated methods to exploit vulnerabilities, breaching your system and exfiltrating data.
  • Accidental leakage via tools: Tools with access to your sensitive data (such as a generative AI model trained on proprietary information or a data analytics engine with access to customer personally identifiable information/protected health information) are exploited and leak your data.

Most of the listed causes are technical in nature, meaning certain cybersecurity measures can help reduce your organization’s risk of data leakage. Before we consider those measures, let’s look briefly at the impact that data leakage can have on an organization.

The impact of data leakage

When a business suffers from data leakage, the most immediate and severe impact is financial loss. An organization will incur costs — resources, time, and money — to fix the breach. It may also need to compensate affected parties and could face lawsuits and hefty fines for noncompliance with data protection regulations.

In addition, a business will suffer reputational damage. In an era when data privacy and protection are at the top of the list of consumer concerns, the erosion of customer trust stemming from a data leak may bring irreparable harm. Damage to a company’s reputation can be long-lasting, leading to a loss of business.

When personal information is leaked, individuals face significant privacy and identity risks. Identity theft, fraud, and an invasion of privacy are all possible impacts of a data leakage incident. In addition to fueling an individual’s sense of vulnerability and mistrust, this can cause financial harm — to the individual and to the organization that was responsible for safeguarding their data.

From a legal standpoint, data leakage can result in grave compliance, regulatory, and legal consequences. Organizations are often bound by laws and regulations such as the GDPR, HIPAA, and PCI DSS. When they’re found to be noncompliant — and an occurrence of data leakage may be a good indication that they are — this can lead to legal action, financial penalties, and the burdens of corrective action.

How to prevent data leakage

Preventing data leakage requires you to combine data security best practices with secure data management. Here are some key actions organizations should take:

  • Perform regular audits and compliance checks. These systematic reviews ensure that systems and processes adhere to security standards and regulatory requirements, helping to identify vulnerabilities and maintain compliance.
  • Implement continuous monitoring of data flows. Monitoring data flows from source to destination in real time helps to quickly identify and address unusual patterns or unauthorized data transfers.
  • Leverage AI-native solutions to detect anomalous activity. AI-native solutions can analyze network and data movement to reveal patterns that human analysts would be unable to see, further identifying data breaches and enabling quicker response and mitigation.
  • Enforce strict access controls. Restrict sensitive data access only to essential personnel, implementing the principle of least privilege. This will minimize the risk of both intentional and unintentional data leaks.
  • Regularly update and patch systems. By consistently updating software and systems with the latest security patches, you can help eliminate vulnerabilities that could lead to data leakage.
  • Educate and train employees. Provide ongoing training to your employees regarding data security best practices and potential risks. This can greatly reduce the likelihood of unintentional data leakage due to human error.


Your data is likely the most valuable asset in your organization, which makes it a high-value target for cyberattackers. The threat of a data leakage incident, whether intentional or unintentional, is real. Because today’s cyber threats are ever-evolving and growing in sophistication, leveraging advanced cybersecurity tools — like CrowdStrike Falcon® Data Protection — to protect your data is essential.

Falcon Data Protection correlates and analyzes activity across your endpoints and data to provide comprehensive detection and response. It performs automated policy enforcement to ensure strict security controls governing your sensitive data, thereby enabling your organization to remain protected and compliant.

As a part of the CrowdStrike Falcon® platform, Falcon Data Protection can be deployed quickly, getting you up and running to protect against data breaches and leakage within minutes. For more information about the Falcon platform, sign up for a free trial or contact us to learn more.


Narendran is a Director of Product Marketing for Identity Protection and Zero Trust at CrowdStrike. He has over 17 years of experience in driving product marketing and GTM strategies at cybersecurity startups and large enterprises such as HP and SolarWinds. He was previously Director of Product Marketing at Preempt Security, which was acquired by CrowdStrike. Narendran holds a M.S. in Computer Science from University of Kiel, Germany.