What Is Data Theft?

The increasing number of data breaches and cyber-attacks makes data theft a significant threat to both individuals and organisations. The consequences of data theft, such as financial loss, reputational damage, and legal penalties, are severe and can have long-lasting effects on an organisation.

While both internal and external factors can cause data theft, it is important for organisations to understand what data theft is in today’s ever-evolving threat landscape and how to implement comprehensive security strategies to protect against it.

Cybersecurity Education and Training Begins Here

Start a Free Trial

Here’s how your free trial works:

  • Meet with our cybersecurity experts to assess your environment and identify your threat risk exposure
  • Within 24 hours and minimal configuration, we’ll deploy our solutions for 30 days
  • Experience our technology in action!
  • Receive report outlining your security vulnerabilities to help you take immediate action against cybersecurity attacks

Fill out this form to request a meeting with our cybersecurity experts.

Thank you for your submission.

Data Theft Definition

Data theft is the unauthorised acquisition of digital data from an entity, often driven by motives of financial profit or to disrupt business activities. It encompasses the illicit access, transfer, or storage of sensitive details ranging from personal credentials and financial records to proprietary technologies, algorithms, and processes.

Data theft is a serious security and privacy breach with potentially devastating consequences, including crippling compliance penalties, tarnished reputation, and financial and operational losses. Not limited to outsider attacks, data theft can be caused by system administrators, office workers, adversaries, or even malicious employees who steal corporate data from secured file servers, database servers, cloud applications, or personal devices.

Understanding “Data Breaches” vs. “Data Leaks”

Data breaches, data leaks, unintentional information disclosure, and data spill are some of the terms used to describe data theft. The former two, “data breach” and “data leak”, are prevalent concerns often used interchangeably but have distinct meanings.

A data breach typically refers to an incident where unauthorised individuals gain access to secure or confidential information, often through malicious intent or activities. This might involve tactics such as hacking, the use of malware, or exploiting system vulnerabilities. The motivation behind these breaches can range from financial gain, as seen with stolen credit card information, to strategic advantages, such as stolen trade secrets or government intelligence.

On the other hand, a data leak is typically characterised by the unintentional release or exposure of private data to the public or individuals who shouldn’t have access to it. The cause can be human error, misconfigurations, or even negligence, such as when sensitive information is mistakenly posted on a public website or sent to the wrong email recipient. While there may not be a malicious actor or direct intrusion as with breaches, the consequences of leaks can be just as severe, potentially leading to reputational damage, financial losses, or even legal implications.

How Does Data Theft Occur?

Data theft can occur through various means, primarily driven by technological vulnerabilities, human error, or malicious intent. Here’s a rundown of the most common ways data theft happens:

  • Phishing Attacks: Cybercriminals send fraudulent messages (phishing emails), often via email, that appear to be from legitimate sources to trick recipients into revealing sensitive data, such as login credentials or credit card numbers.
  • Malware: Malicious software, also known as malware, including viruses, worms, ransomware, and trojans, can be secretly installed on a user’s computer or network to steal data or give attackers unauthorised access.
  • Man-in-the-Middle (MitM) Attacks: Attackers secretly intercept and possibly alter the communication between two parties to steal data. This is known as MitM attacks
  • Weak or Stolen Credentials: Using weak passwords or failing to change default login details can make systems an easy target. Additionally, credentials can be stolen through various means, enabling unauthorised access.
  • Unpatched Software: Software vulnerabilities that are not promptly patched can be exploited by attackers to gain unauthorised access or inject malicious code.
  • Insider Threats: Disgruntled employees or those with malicious intent can misuse their access privileges to steal or leak data.
  • Drive-by Downloads: Merely visiting a compromised website without downloading or clicking anything can lead to the automatic downloading of malicious software.
  • Unsecured Networks: Using unencrypted or poorly secured networks, especially public Wi-Fi, can expose data to eavesdroppers.
  • Misconfigured Databases or Cloud Storage: Data stored online can be exposed if not correctly configured, allowing unauthorised access.
  • Social Engineering: Social engineering are tactics used to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential information or performing specific actions that compromise data security.
  • Skimming: A method often used with credit card theft where a small device captures card information during legitimate transactions, such as at an ATM or gas pump.
  • Physical Theft: Devices like laptops, smartphones, or external hard drives can be stolen, providing thieves with access to the stored data. This includes dumpster diving: thieves physically search through trash for discarded documents or devices containing sensitive data.

Effective measures against data theft require a multi-faceted approach, including regular security awareness training for employees, implementing robust cybersecurity solutions, maintaining up-to-date software, and enforcing strict access controls, to name a few.

Types of Stolen Data

The types of data thieves and threat actors target can vary depending on their motives. Here are some common examples of data that can be stolen:

  • Personally Identifiable Information (PII): PII includes information used to identify an individual, such as name, address, social security number, or date of birth. Attackers often target PII for identity theft or financial fraud.
  • Financial Information: Financial data includes credit card and debit card details, bank details, and other financial information. Attackers can use this information for financial gain, such as making unauthorised purchases or accessing bank accounts.
  • Personal Health Information (PHI): PHI includes medical records, insurance information, and other health-related data. Attackers typically target PHI for insurance fraud or blackmail.
  • Trade Secrets and Intellectual Property: Trade secrets and intellectual property include proprietary technologies, software code, algorithms, and other sensitive information. Attackers can use this information for competitive advantage or sell it to other bad actors.
  • Login Credentials: Usernames and passwords for various online services, including email accounts, social networks, and online banking, can provide a gateway for further theft or unauthorised activities.
  • Customer Records: Customer records include personal information, purchase history, and other customer data. Attackers can use this information for targeted phishing attacks or identity theft.
  • Source Codes and Algorithms: Source codes and algorithms are valuable to attackers to create counterfeit products or access secure systems.
  • Communication Data: Emails, text messages, voice calls, and other forms of personal or corporate communication can be intercepted and used for various motives, from personal blackmail to corporate espionage.

These are just some of the most frequently targeted assets stolen in data theft scenarios. Attackers will sometimes go after educational records, government and military data, biometric data, consumer behavioural data, and other digital assets, depending on the target entity.

Consequences of Data Theft

Data theft has severe repercussions that impact both individuals and organisations in unique ways. Here’s a closer look at the fallout from data theft tailored to each group:

Consequences for Organisations:

  • Compliance Setbacks: Violations stemming from data theft can cause non-compliance with established data protection standards, resulting in hefty penalties and fines.
  • Tarnished Reputation: An organisation’s public image can suffer significantly from data breaches, eroding customer confidence and loyalty.
  • Financial Losses: Beyond the immediate theft, organisations may grapple with financial setbacks due to investigation costs, restorative measures, and potential legal battles.
  • Operational Interruptions: Data theft can disrupt business functions, causing downtime, decreased efficiency, and potential revenue losses.
  • Legal Repercussions: Breaches can lead to a gamut of legal troubles, from lawsuits by affected stakeholders to possible criminal investigations.


Consequences for Individuals:

  • Identity Theft: Thieves can exploit personal data, engaging in identity fraud by opening false accounts or making unauthorised transactions in the victim’s name.
  • Monetary Losses: Individuals may face unauthorised withdrawals or charges, draining their financial resources.
  • Privacy Violations: A breach in one’s data can strip away their privacy, revealing sensitive information, intimate details, and communication with others.
  • Reputational Damages: Personal or professional reputation can be tarnished, resulting in mistrust, personal embarrassment, or broader social implications.
  • Health Information Exposure: The exposure of personal health records can lead to privacy infringements and potential misuse of sensitive health data.


Both organisations and individuals must employ stringent security measures to effectively stave off the cyber-crime that targets their data. This often involves leveraging a combination of technological solutions (e.g., encryption and cybersecurity products) and behavioural practices (e.g., security awareness training) to combat threat actors from stealing essential data.

How to Protect Against Data Theft

Securing sensitive information is critical in the ever-evolving threat landscape. To fortify your defences and safeguard your data, consider the following best practices, tips, and cybersecurity guidelines:

Strong and Unique Passwords

One of the most fundamental steps in data protection is using password protection and vigilant password policies. Password best practices incorporate a blend of uppercase and lowercase letters, numbers, and special characters. Refrain from using easily decipherable details like birthdays or names. Importantly, ensure each service or account has its own distinct password. That way, even if one password is compromised, the damage doesn't cascade to other accounts.

Multifactor Authentication (MFA)

MFA provides an added layer of security, typically requiring users to provide two distinct forms of identification before gaining access. This could be a combination of something they know (a password) and something they have (a mobile code or token). Always enable MFA on platforms that offer it, especially involving business accounts.

Regular Software Updates

Consistently updating software is vital to minimise security vulnerabilities. Developers often release updates that address and rectify these gaps and vulnerabilities. By staying updated, you harness these fixes, keeping your systems resilient against known threats.

Secure Network Connections

When connecting to the internet, especially through public networks, consider employing Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). VPNs encrypt your online activity, keeping it hidden from prying eyes. WPA3 protocols and strong passwords are recommended for home networks to deter unauthorised access.

Beware of Phishing Scams

Cybercriminals often use deception by masquerading as trustworthy entities through emails or messages. Always approach unsolicited communications with caution, avoiding suspicious links or unverified attachments.

Limit Data Access

Within an organisational context, data access should be a privilege, not a right. Implement the principle of least privilege, ensuring employees only access data pertinent to their roles. Regularly reviewing and updating these permissions is equally essential.

Regular Backups

Backing up or archiving data is a safeguard against data loss scenarios. Whether a hardware failure, cyber-attack, or accidental deletion occurs, having a recent backup ensures data continuity. Store backups in secure locations and remember to encrypt them for added security.

Use Encryption

Encrypting data transforms it into a code, preventing unauthorised access. Ensure that data, whether in transit over a network or resting on a storage device, is encrypted. Consider full-disk encryption for mobile devices and laptops to protect data even if the device is stolen.

Educate and Train Staff

Knowledge is power. In cybersecurity, equipping staff with the knowledge of potential threats and best practices is invaluable. Regular training sessions can keep an organisation’s human element updated and vigilant.

Secure Physical Access

Cybersecurity isn’t just digital; physical security is paramount too. Secure data centres, server rooms, or even office spaces that handle sensitive information. Biometric systems or access controls can be instrumental. Additionally, securely dispose of any physical data, such as paper documents, to prevent unauthorised access.

Leverage Cybersecurity Software

Effective cybersecurity software acts as a gatekeeper to protect sensitive data from leaks and breaches. As a general benchmark for both individuals and organisations, invest in reliable antivirus and anti-malware solutions. Additionally, firewalls can act as a barrier, scrutinising incoming and outgoing traffic for potential threats.

Monitor Systems and Networks

Constant vigilance can preempt many security incidents. Employ monitoring tools to keep an eye on systems and network activities. Regular log reviews can unveil irregularities, allowing timely interventions.

Adopting and maintaining these practices enhances your security posture, providing a robust defence mechanism against various digital threats.

Real-World Examples of Data Theft

High-profile data theft incidents demonstrate the catastrophic impact of data breaches, including financial losses, legal consequences, reputational damage, and erosion of customer trust. Here are a few recent real-world examples:

  • Equifax Data Breach (2017): The Equifax data breach exposed the personal information of approximately 147 million individuals, including names, Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and driver’s license numbers. The settlement included $425 million distributed to affected individuals.
  • Yahoo Data Breaches (2013-2014): Yahoo suffered two major data breaches that affected over 3 billion user accounts, compromising names, email addresses, phone numbers, and hashed passwords.
  • Marriott Data Breach (2014-2018): The Marriott data breach exposed the personal information of approximately 500 million guests, including names, addresses, passport numbers, and payment card information.
  • Target Data Breach (2013): The Target data breach compromised the personal and financial information of approximately 110 million customers, including credit and debit card information, names, addresses, and phone numbers.
  • Capital One Data Breach (2019): The Capital One data breach exposed the personal information of over 100 million customers, including names, addresses, credit scores, and social security numbers.

These cases are just a few profound examples of data theft involving widespread data breaches and financial loss. These incidents occur far more often on a personal or micro level. In fact, recent data breach stats indicate that a new data breach or cyber-attack takes place every 11 seconds.

How Proofpoint Can Help

Proofpoint offers a range of cybersecurity solutions to help organisations enhance their data privacy and security posture. The company protects against data theft through its comprehensive Information Protection suite, which centres on Proofpoint’s Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solutions. This product suite helps protect against data theft by:

  • Detecting sensitive data: Proofpoint’s Email DLP accurately identifies sensitive information and confidential data within emails. It can detect various types of sensitive data, such as personally identifiable information (PII), financial data, and intellectual property.
  • Preventing data leakage: DLP prevents sensitive data from leaking outside the organisation through email. It detects data exfiltration transmissions via email and stops critical data loss.
  • Integration with Proofpoint Enterprise DLP: Proofpoint’s Email DLP is integrated with its Enterprise DLP solution, offering comprehensive protection across email, cloud applications, endpoints, on-premises file shares, and SharePoint. This integration enables organisations to find, track, and safeguard data across multiple channels and apply common data detectors.
  • Encryption: Proofpoint emphasises using cryptographically-secure encryption to prevent attackers from reading stolen data. Encryption helps protect data at rest and in transit, making it difficult for unauthorised individuals to access sensitive information.
  • Incident management and response: Proofpoint Information Protection solutions provide incident management capabilities, allowing organisations to respond quickly during data exfiltration. This quick response helps minimise the impact of data breaches and enables organisations to take appropriate actions to mitigate risks.
  • Threat intelligence: Proofpoint leverages its Nexus threat graph and combines it with Proofpoint Threat Intelligence to help organisations understand if their protected information or data is at risk. This information helps organisations identify potential threats and take proactive measures to protect their data.

It’s important to note that data protection is a multi-layered approach, and organisations should implement a comprehensive security strategy that includes not only technology solutions but also employee training, access controls, and other security measures. Learn more about how to reinforce your data security posture by contacting Proofpoint.

Ready to Give Proofpoint a Try?

Start with a free Proofpoint trial.