Compromised Employee Accounts Led to Most Expensive Data Breaches

Compromised Employee Accounts Led to Most Expensive Data Breaches

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According to IBM Security results, the financial impact of data breaches cost companies studied $3.86 million per breach on average, and compromised employee accounts were the most expensive root cause. Based on in-depth analysis of data breaches experienced by over 500 organizations worldwide, 80% of these incidents resulted in the exposure of customers' personally identifiable information (PII). Out of all types of data exposed in these breaches, customer PII was also the costliest to businesses studied.

As companies are increasingly accessing sensitive data via new remote work and cloud-based business operations, the report sheds light on the financial losses that organizations can suffer if this data is compromised. A separate IBM study found that over half of surveyed employees new to working from home due to the pandemic have not been provided with new guidelines on how to handle customer PII, despite the changing risk models associated with this shift.

The report is based on in-depth interviews with more than 3,200 security professional in organizations that suffered a data breach over the past year. Companies studied who had fully deployed security automation technologies experienced less than half the data breach costs compared to those who didn't have these tools deployed; $2.45 million vs. $6.03 million on average.

In incidents where attackers accessed corporate networks through the use of stolen or compromised credentials, studied businesses saw nearly $1 million higher data breach costs compared to the global average, reaching $4.77 million per data breach. Exploiting third-party vulnerabilities was the second costliest root cause of malicious breaches ($4.5 million) for this group.

Breaches wherein over 50 million records were compromised saw costs jump to $392 million from $388 million the previous year. Breaches where 40 to 50 million records were exposed cost studied companies $364 million on average, a cost increase of $19 million compared to the 2019 report. Data breaches believed to originate from nation state attacks were the costliest, compared to other threat actors examined in the report. State-sponsored attacks averaged $4.43 million in data breach costs, surpassing both financially motivated cybercriminals and hacktivists.

Stolen or compromised credentials and cloud misconfigurations were the most common causes of a malicious breach for companies in the report, representing nearly 40% of malicious incidents. With over 8.5 billion records exposed in 2019, and attackers using previously exposed emails and passwords in one out of five breaches studied, businesses should rethink their security strategy via the adoption of a zero-trust approach, reexamining how they authenticate users and the extent of access users are granted.

Similarly, companies' struggle with security complexity, a top breach cost factor, is likely contributing to cloud misconfigurations becoming a growing security challenge. The 2020 report revealed that attackers used cloud misconfigurations to breach networks nearly 20% of the time, increasing breach costs by more than half a million dollars to $4.41 million on average – making it the third most expensive initial infection vector examined in the report.

Despite representing just 13% of malicious breaches studied, state-sponsored threat actors were the most damaging type of adversary according to the 2020 report, suggesting that financially motivated attacks (53%) don't necessarily translate into higher financial losses for businesses. The highly tactical nature, longevity and stealth maneuvers of state-backed attacks, as well as the high value data targeted, often result in a more extensive compromise of victim environments, increasing breach costs to an average of $4.43 million.

The report highlights the growing divide in breach costs between businesses implementing advanced security technologies and those lagging behind, revealing a cost-saving difference of $3.58 million for studied companies with fully deployed security automation versus those that have yet to deploy this type of technology. The cost gap has grown by $2 million, from a difference of $1.55 million in 2018.

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