Every organization knows the importance of data security. Data is a crucial and high-value asset for almost every company in the modern world. This also creates a large target for cyber-criminals as data can be stolen or exposed for financial gain or other personal reasons. One of the leading cyber-attack methods in today’s digital world is ransomware attacks which focus on exfiltrating data from organizations to use as leverage. In 2023, ransomware payments surpassed US $1 billion. Hackers will use exfiltrated data to resell on the dark web to the highest bidder or to extort money from companies directly. In this blog article, we explore the  definition, the different data exfiltration techniques used, and how to prevent data exfiltration. First, we need to understand what exfiltration of data is.

What Is Data Exfiltration?

Data exfiltration can be defined as any type of unauthorized access, transfer, copying, or retrieval of data from a secure location. A data exfiltration attack involves the theft of any sensitive data from corporate or personal devices. The exfiltration of data can lead to severe financial loss, legal liability, or reputational damage - having devastating effects on any business and generally affecting operations.

Another data exfiltration meaning could include data leakage from inside the company through malicious employees or simply human error. In 2023, data exfiltration attacks registered a surge of 39% and became the preferred goal of many cyber-criminals. Most data exfiltrated include private data that is later sold on the dark web or used in ransomware attacks such as social security numbers, IDs, passwords, and other confidential information.

Data can be exfiltrated physically using a USB hard drive or over a network through malware. The most common method used is over a network as it presents less risk to hackers and can be very difficult to detect.

What is Data Exfiltration

Data Exfiltration Techniques

There are several ways data can be stolen from an organization or individual and each depends on the hacker’s intentions, capabilities, or the type of data being stolen. Generally, data exfiltration can be categorized into two groups: data exfiltration from inside an organization and from outside an organization. These are some of the main data exfiltration tools used:

Social Engineering Data Exfiltration

The exfiltration of data is often done through social engineering attacks. These are the types of cyber-attacks that depend on convincing someone working for an organization to share sensitive data, access controls, or open email attachments under pretenses. Often, social engineering hackers will pose as an employee or partner to gain information that would give them access – such as a password or username. There are many types of social engineering attacks but they all generally rely on employees being not cautious, unprepared, or oblivious.

  • Insider Threat Data Exfiltration: Many times, the biggest threat to an organization comes from within. While malicious insider threats are less common, careless workers can also leave your data unprotected. Data exfiltration by an insider threat can be accidentally done by an employee falling for a phishing scam or innocently downloading proprietary information. Malicious insider threats are often disgruntled employees or whistleblowers who use their access to download sensitive data over a long period to avoid suspicion. The data is then either exposed or used as leverage against the company.
  • Phishing Data Exfiltration: Phishing scams are one of the most commonly encountered social engineering tactics. Typically, phishing comes in the form of an email that looks legitimate yet contains a malware injection or requests access information - such as passwords. Phishing attacks can be emails, texts, or phone calls.
  • Human Error Data Exfiltration: Human error is a very common and natural part of any organization. Unfortunately, human error that leads to the exfiltration of data is even more common. Generally, a lack of training or awareness will push employees to open links, attachments, or suspicious files sent to them – leading to a data breach.
  • Vulnerability Exploit Data Exfiltration: Exploiting a vulnerability in a network can give hackers free access to exfiltrate data. Vulnerability exploitation takes advantage of flaws or openings in a system before the vendor can find them – this is called a zero-day exploit.
  • Advanced Persistent Threats (APTs) Data Exfiltration: An Advanced Persistent Threat will try to access data undetected and usually needs social engineering tactics to be put in place. Hackers use ATPs to mine and discover data that will be exfiltrated later on.
  • Malware Data Exfiltration: A malware injection is often pushed through the endpoint of a network. Once inside, the malware exfiltrates data to an external storage device used by the hacker. Some types of malware can spread easily and most of them will often disrupt operations. Other types of malware can remain dormant in a network without detection.
  • Outbound Email Data Exfiltration: Hackers can also exfiltrate data on outbound email systems to gather calendars, databases, images, or planning documents.
  • DNS Data Exfiltration: Threat actors can use Domain Name System (DNS) requests to covertly exfiltrate data by encoding it within DNS queries or responses. This bypassed traditional security measures and firewall defences to create a virtual tunnel for exfiltrating data.
  • Cloud Insecurity Data Exfiltration: While the cloud can be mostly secure, there are always risks involved. Hackers can take advantage of poorly secured cloud infrastructure to exfiltrate data or install malware.

While data exfiltration techniques come in many shapes and forms, the general idea is always the theft or loss of data. Now, to better understand the data exfiltration meaning, we’ll explore some examples of data exfiltration.

Data Exfiltration Attack Examples

Data exfiltration attacks are evolving and growing at an alarming rate. To better understand the effects and magnitude of data exfiltration, we’re going to look at some real-life data exfiltration examples:

Anthem Health Insurance Data Exfiltration

In 2017, Anthem Health Insurance realized that one of its healthcare consulting firms employed someone involved in identity theft. The firm contacted the insurer and found that the employee had been forwarding the personal information of 18,500 members to a third-party vendor. This was the second attack for the company which had paid a US $115 million settlement for a previous data breach in 2015.

PharMerica Data Exfiltration

In 2023, PharMerica revealed that it had found suspicious activity on its computer network. An unknown third party had accessed the pharmaceutical company’s infrastructure and extracted the personal data of almost six million people. The data breach exposed social security numbers, birth dates, names, health insurance information, and other personally identifiable information. In March, the Money Message ransomware gang took responsibility for the breach when they began publishing the stolen data.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Data Exfiltration

In February 2016, the data of 44,000 Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation customers was breached by an employee leaving the agency. The chairman of the company, however, maintains that the data was downloaded to a personal storage device “inadvertently and without malicious intent.”

Dish Network Data Exfiltration

In February of 2023, Dish Network experienced disruptions across its platforms and later admitted to being the victim of a ransomware attack. Around 296,851 individuals were affected by the breach and the exposed information included names, license numbers, and other personal information.

Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Data Exfiltration

The Harvard Pilgrim Health Care (HPHC) company was victim to a ransomware attack in April 2023 that compromised the data of 2,550,922 people. The information exposed included names, physical addresses, phone numbers, dates of birth, health insurance account information, Social Security numbers, provider taxpayer identification numbers, and clinical information.

Now, you might get somewhat confused with the concept of data loss – which is a different term. To clarify this, we’ll try to break down the differences next.

The Difference Between Data Loss and Data Exfiltration

Typically, data security incidents can be categorized into three main types: data exfiltration, data leakage, and data breaches. While these terms are related in some ways, it’s important to understand how they differ as well. This distinction will determine the appropriate response and prevention measures necessary.

  • Data Exfiltration – This is the unauthorized transfer, copying, or retrieval of data from a secure location to another device. It is a deliberate and targeted attack on an organization or individual. Data exfiltration only occurs when the stolen data is moved or copied to another storage device under the attacker’s control. These attacks are mostly done for personal or financial gain.
  • Data Leakage – On the other hand, data leakage refers to the accidental exposure of private data to unauthorized parties. This is usually caused by improper storage, lack of training, or configuration errors.
  • Data Breach – Lastly, a data breach is any security incident in which data is accessed or revealed. This can be intentional or unintentional and generally results in the exposure of sensitive data to unauthorized individuals.

Now that we can distinguish the type of data security incidents that occur, we can tackle how to prevent data exfiltration in the first place. Data exfiltration attacks are often very difficult to identify, so let’s focus first on detecting data exfiltration.

How to Detect Data Exfiltration

Most data exfiltration techniques can be very hard to detect and often take weeks or months to identify. This ensures that a large amount of data can be siphoned from an organization before anyone notices anything abnormal. Companies need to invest in cybersecurity hardware and software tools that can identify threats faster and alert the IT team. These are some methods that can be used to ensure data exfiltration detection before it is too late:

  • Using an Internet Access Gateway – or IAG – to analyze Internet access behavior and user patterns to seek out suspicious activity.
  • Monitoring unusual login activity such as failed attempts, password changes, or unauthorized access attempts.
  • Securing endpoints through firewalls and endpoint protection software.
  • Noting any unusual data compression or encryption on files. Hackers will typically compress or encrypt data before moving it.
  • Monitoring the use of external storage devices such as USBs or personal hard drives.
  • Searching for any changes to security tools or software that might enable access.
  • Looking for any suspicious files or accounts that have been newly created.

While identifying data exfiltration is crucial, the ideal solution is always prevention. We’ll now discuss how to prevent data exfiltration from happening.

Data Exfiltration Prevention

Cyber-attacks always seem like a novel occurrence that would never happen to you or your organization. However, the truth is that data exfiltration is a growing threat that is not slowing down. Data security training is crucial in data exfiltration prevention and can seamlessly reinforce a company’s cybersecurity posture. Let’s go over some of the ways you can ensure adequate data exfiltration prevention:

  1. Using Next-Generation Firewalls: With an effective Next-Generation Firewall in place, organizations can protect their networks from both internal and external threats. These firewalls have advanced features that enable network monitoring and deep traffic inspection to quickly identify and resolve data exfiltration attacks.
  2. Implementing Endpoint Security: Endpoints are generally the most vulnerable area of a network and are usually the most targeted areas for data exfiltration to take place. Using an Endpoint Detection and Response platform allows your company to constantly monitor endpoints for suspicious behavior or files.
  3. Using Strong Access Controls: Stronger access controls generally mean using stronger passwords, enabling multi-factor authentication, and using a system of zero-trust for all sensitive data access.
  4. Using Role-Based Access: With Role-Based Access Control (RBAC), only authorized personnel have access to specific files and controls based on their duties. This ensures that sensitive information cannot be accessed by anyone in the company.
  5. Encrypting Sensitive Data at Rest and in Transit: Encryption is a great way to prevent data from being accessed or understood in the event of data exfiltration. While data is being stored or transferred, it should remain encrypted to prevent unauthorized access.
  6. Conducting Vulnerability Assessments and Penetration Testing: Regularly test your organization’s safety protocols by ordering penetration tests and vulnerability assessments to ascertain the level of security for your data. This can be used to improve weaker areas and enhance your security posture.
  7. Apply Security Patches and Updates: Try to update software and security patches as soon as possible to ensure that vulnerabilities in your system cannot be exploited by cyber threats.
  8. Managing Strict BYOD Protocols: Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) policies refer to the practice of employees using personal devices for work-related tasks. This includes smartphones, tablets, or laptops. Closely monitor all personal devices connected to the company network to ensure that no data is being exfiltrated onto outsider devices.
  9. Use DLP Tools: Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tools are used to monitor any unauthorized transfer of data leaving the network.
  10. Employee Training and Awareness: Your workforce is the backbone of the organization. Most data exfiltration attacks are social engineering or phishing scams that rely on employee naivety and insufficient training. Try to educate employees on proper cyber hygiene and to always be cautious about opening attachments.

Data exfiltration is a rapidly advancing and widespread threat in today’s dynamic digital landscape. Sangfor offers elite cybersecurity and cloud computing infrastructure that can redefine the way your organization handles cyber threats.


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