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A Data Breach is a security violation wherein sensitive, protected or confidential data is copied, transmitted, viewed, stolen or misused by an individual unauthorized to do so. The information could be anything from a user account password to credit card details to medical records to emails and social media logins.

Generally, a breach is the result of a cybercriminal’s successful attack on a company’s systems or protocols. The attacks may use multiple methods including phishing, social engineering and malware infections. They often find their targets by looking for technical vulnerabilities in a system or protocol. Once a breach is done, cybercriminals use the compromised system to gain access to other systems and user accounts through lateral movement or privilege escalation.

The resulting damage may have hard and soft costs. Financial costs include paying ransoms and lost revenue from customers who stop using a company or buying its products/services. It also includes legal fines and reputational damage.

For individuals, a data breach can lead to identity theft. The stolen information gives criminals an advantage over the victims in many ways such as filing fake tax returns, stealing money from bank accounts or even obtaining new credit cards in their name. In 2016, Yahoo was found to have suffered two massive breaches affecting up to 1.5 billion user names, dates of birth, addresses, phone numbers, and unencrypted security questions and answers.

Once a breach has been detected, the company that was hacked will notify affected parties and offer advice on how to protect themselves. It’s important to act on this advice immediately, especially for accounts with your personal information such as bank and credit card accounts. If you receive a breach notice, start by changing the passwords on any accounts that were accessed.