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Data Exfiltration

What is Data Exfiltration?

Data exfiltration is the unauthorized transfer of data from a system or network, typically with malicious intent. This can be performed by an attacker, an insider, or malware specifically designed for data theft. Data exfiltration is a significant concern for businesses and public sector organizations as it can lead to severe financial loss, reputational damage, and potential legal consequences.

In most cases, the goal of data exfiltration is to obtain sensitive information such as customer records, intellectual property, trade secrets, or classified government information. An attacker might exfiltrate data as part of a ransomware attack as well as for other purposes such as identity theft, corporate espionage, or to cause public embarrassment.

Is There a Difference Between Data Exfiltration and Data Breach?

Data breach’ and ‘data exfiltration’ both describe unauthorized access to data, and the terms are often used interchangeably. However, exfiltration is more frequently used to describe malicious or intentional data exposure, whereas breach would also encompass incidents where data is exposed accidentally.

Risks of Data Exfiltration

Data exfiltration can have dire consequences for the operations, reputation, and finances of an organization. 

Exposure of sensitive data: Data exfiltration can lead to customer data, employee records, or trade secrets being leaked. When such data falls into the wrong hands, it can be used for malicious purposes such as fraud, espionage, and extortion. Organizations may face legal consequences for failing to adequately protect sensitive data, leading to costly fines and lawsuits.

Direct financial costs. These include fines and legal expenses as well as the costs associated with remediation efforts, such as enhancing security measures, repairing or upgrading affected systems, and conducting incident response and forensic investigations. Additionally, organizations may be required to provide identity theft protection and credit monitoring services to affected individuals, further adding to the financial burden. The loss of intellectual property and trade secrets may also harm a company's competitive edge and long-term growth prospects. 

Reputational damage: Data breaches and information leaks can lead to negative publicity and diminished consumer trust. Customers may lose confidence in the organization's ability to safeguard their data, and prospective clients may hesitate to do business with a company suffering from a tarnished reputation. For publicly traded companies, severe breach incidents can result in decreased shareholder value and stock prices, impacting an organization's overall market position and financial stability.

Data Exfiltration in Public Clouds

Data exfiltration in public clouds often occurs due to misconfigurations, vulnerabilities, or weak security controls. Some common scenarios include:

  • Misconfigured storage services such as Amazon S3 buckets or Azure Blob Storage. Overly-expansive permissions can allow unauthorized users to access, download, or modify sensitive data stored in these services.
  • Weak authentication and access controls: Attackers can exploit weak authentication mechanisms, such as default credentials, easy-to-guess passwords, or a lack of multi-factor authentication (MFA) to gain unauthorized access to cloud resources and exfiltrate data.
  • Insecure application programming interfaces (APIs): APIs play a vital role in cloud environments for integrating services and applications. If APIs are left unsecured or poorly implemented, attackers can exploit them to access sensitive data.
  • Compromised credentials: Attackers can obtain valid user credentials through methods like phishing, social engineering, or credential stuffing attacks, giving them access to sensitive cloud resources.
  • Insider threats: Employees or contractors with access to an organization's cloud resources could intentionally or accidentally exfiltrate data, depending on their motives or level of security awareness.
  • Malware and advanced persistent threat (APT) attacks: Malware or APTs can be introduced into cloud environments through various methods, such as spear-phishing, drive-by downloads, or exploiting software vulnerabilities. Once attackers establish a foothold, they can stealthily exfiltrate data over time.
  • Poor network security: Insecure network configurations or weak security group policies can present opportunities for bad actors.

Preventing Cloud Data Exfiltration with Dig Security

Dig offers a comprehensive data security platform that enables organizations to discover, classify, monitor, and protect their cloud data against exfiltration. Through data security posture management (DSPM) and data detection & response (DDR) capabilities, Dig protects against a wide variety of threats – including data misuse, ransomware attacks, and shadow data. 

Learn more about Dig Security

10 Warning Signs for Data Exfiltration

Detecting data exfiltration can be challenging as attackers employ various tactics to stay undetected. However, some signs or indicators may suggest data exfiltration is occurring on your network or systems:

  1. Unusual data transfer patterns: An unexpected increase in data traffic, particularly to suspicious or unknown IP addresses, could indicate data exfiltration. Monitor your network for spikes in upload traffic or unauthorized transfers.
  2. Unusual login activity: Multiple failed login attempts, logins from unfamiliar locations or at odd hours, or an increase in administrator-level logins could signal unauthorized access with an aim to exfiltrate data.
  3. Unexpected network connections: Unusual connections to external servers, especially on non-standard ports or using uncommon protocols, may suggest attempts to exfiltrate data.
  4. Changes in file or directory permissions: Unauthorized manipulation of file permissions or repeated attempts to access restricted files could signify data exfiltration efforts.
  5. Unusual data compression or encryption: Attackers often compress or encrypt data before exfiltrating it to make the transfer more efficient and covert. Look for unexpected compression or encryption activities on your systems.
  6. Unusual account creation or privilege escalation: The creation of new accounts or changes in user privileges could indicate an attacker attempting to gain a foothold for exfiltrating data.
  7. Abnormal behavior of users or systems: Unexpected behavior, such as abnormal activity levels or workstation connections outside regular working hours, might indicate compromised accounts or systems being used for data exfiltration.
  8. Disabling or tampering with security tools: Attackers may attempt to disable antivirus software, firewalls, or intrusion detection systems to make their data exfiltration activities unnoticed.
  9. File or system anomalies: Look for modified timestamps, unexpected file deletions, or the creation of new and unexpected files or directories, which may indicate data exfiltration activity.
  10. Alerts from security solutions: Cloud data security platforms, endpoint detection and Response (EDR) solutions, and intrusion detection and prevention systems (IDPS) can provide alerts and notifications on potential data exfiltration activities.


What is data exfiltration?

Data exfiltration is the unauthorized transfer of data from a system or network, typically with malicious intent. This can be performed by an attacker, an insider, or malware specifically designed for data theft.

What is the difference between data exfiltration and a data breach?

While both terms involve unauthorized data access, exfiltration typically refers to intentional and malicious data exposure, while a data breach encompasses accidental data exposure incidents.

What are examples of data exfiltration in public clouds?

Common data exfiltration types in public clouds include insider threats, misconfigured storage services, compromised credentials, unsecured APIs, and weak authentication mechanisms which can all increase the possibility of a breach.