Email is the riskiest channel for data security


A research from Tessian and the Ponemon Institute reveals that nearly 60% of organizations experienced data loss or exfiltration caused by an employee mistake on email in the last 12 months.

data loss email

Email was revealed as the riskiest channel for data loss in organizations, as stated by 65% of IT security practitioners. This was closely followed by cloud file-sharing services (62%) and instant messaging platforms (57%).

The research surveyed 614 IT security practitioners across the globe to also reveal that:

  • Employee negligence, because of not following policies, is the leading cause of data loss incidents (40%)
  • 27% of data loss incidents are caused by malicious insiders
  • It takes up to three days for security and risk management teams to detect and remediate a data loss and exfiltration incident caused by a malicious insider on email
  • 23% of organizations experience up to 30 security incidents involving employees’ use of email every month (for example, email was sent to an unintended recipient)

The most common types of confidential and sensitive information lost or intentionally stolen include: customer information (61%); intellectual property (56%); and consumer information (47%). User-created data (sensitive email content, text files, M&A documents), regulated data (credit card data, Social Security numbers, national ID numbers, employee data), and intellectual property were identified as the three types of data that are most difficult to protect from data loss.

The top two consequences for data loss incidents were revealed as non-compliance with data protection regulations (57%) and damage to an organization’s reputation (52%). Furthermore, a previous study from Tessian found that 29% of businesses lost a client or customer because of an employee sending an email to the wrong person.

Lack of visibility creates data loss challenges

Organizations cannot protect what they can’t see. A lack of visibility of sensitive data that employees transferred from the network to personal email was cited as the most common barrier (54%) to preventing data loss. Further, 52% of respondents report being unable to identify legitimate data loss incidents and standard employee data handling behaviors.

As a result, it takes security teams 72 hours, on average, to detect and remediate a data loss and exfiltration incident caused by a malicious insider on email, and almost 48 hours to detect and remediate an incident caused by a negligent employee.

Greater education required for employees

73% of organizations are concerned that employees do not understand the sensitivity or confidentiality of data they share through email. In addition, marketing and public relations departments are most likely to put data at risk when using email (61%), closely followed by production/manufacturing (58%) and operations (57%).

Despite these risks, organizations do not have adequate training in place. While 61% have security awareness training, only about half of IT security leaders say their programs properly address the sensitivity and confidentiality of the data that employees can access on email.

“This study showcases the severity of data loss on email and the implications it has for modern enterprises,” said Larry Ponemon, chairman of Ponemon Institute. “Our findings prove the lack of visibility organizations have into sensitive data, how risky employee behavior can be on email and why enterprises should view data loss prevention as a top business priority.”

Tessian CISO Josh Yavor said, “Most security awareness training programs focus on inbound threats, yet fail to adequately address the handling of sensitive data internally. But data loss – whether accidental or intentional – is a major threat and should be treated as a top priority.

“To create awareness and mitigate data loss incidents, organizations need to be proactive in delivering effective data loss prevention training while also gaining greater visibility into how employees handle company data. Security awareness training that directly addresses common types of data loss – including what’s okay to share with personal accounts and what’s not okay to take with you when you leave a company – and a culture that builds trust and confidence among employees will improve security behaviors and limit the amount of data that flows out of the organization.”



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