It’s the nightmare of every website owner who needs to store sensitive information: You wake up one morning to forty-five missed calls. And your phone is still ringing. You check your text messages. Most of the are from your frantic assistant who’s using way more exclamation marks than usual, but some of them are also from huge clients, who are threatening to sue you. You have been the victim of a data breach.
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What does ‘data breach’ mean?
A data breach is what we call it when an unauthorized person gains access to sensitive information like credit card information, healthcare information or sometimes, unmasked personal identities in a forum that’s meant to be anonymous.
Usually, cybercriminals who breach data do this to gain something from the information itself. Credit card information is obviously useful to criminals trying to spend more money than they’ve lawfully earned, and healthcare information and personal identities can be used for blackmail purposes in the right situation.
But sometimes, cybercriminals access and leak personal information on a website just to be malicious, so they can damage the website’s reputation.
How data breaches happen
There isn’t only one way in which data breaches can happen. Just as there are different reasons behind data breaches, so too are there different ways in which they can happen. Here are three of the most common ways that your data can be breached.
- Internal accident: Sometimes, your website’s data is breached because an employee accidentally gains access to information beyond their clearance level. Usually, the employee doesn’t do anything harmful with the information, but you never know what might happen when relationships turn sour.
- Internal malicious attack: Sometimes, employees intentionally gain unauthorized access to data, in an effort to hurt your company. If an employee who is authorized to access to the data does this with the intention of maliciously spreading private information to people who aren’t supposed to have access to it, this is also considered an internal malicious attack.
- External malicious attack: This is the type of data breach that we usually imagine when we hear the words “data breach”. In an external malicious attack, hackers from outside your company gain access to sensitive information stored on your website.
How to protect your website
It might seem like a data breach is inevitable for every website at somepoint, but there are actually six things you can do to make it less likely that your website will suffer a data breach:
1. Secure hosting
A secure web host is the first line of defense against external malicious attacks, because secure web hosts already know how to protect your website from hackers, and they consider it their highest duty to keep your website safe.
Once you’ve found a secure host, you can take your website security to the next level by choosing the right hosting plan.
What are my hosting options?
There are three main hosting plans that are on the table when you’re looking for web hosting:
- Shared hosting
- Dedicated hosting
- VPS hosting
i. Shared economical hosting
Shared hosting is the cheapest hosting option, but also, objectively, the least secure. The reason shared hosting is so cheap is that each server hosts multiple websites. This spreads the server maintenance cost among all the users on the website, driving down the cost for everybody. But because websites on a shared server don’t have their own private server space, shared hosting is the least secure hosting option.
ii. Rent an entire dedicated server
Dedicated hosting is typically the most expensive hosting option because it offers the most security and the most server resources. With dedicated hosting, your website gets its own server. This sounds great in theory, but that’s not always the most economical option for your website. For websites that don’t get hundreds of thousands of visitors per day, all that server space is probably going to go unused. What you want is an option in the middle. Enter: VPS hosting.
iii. Virtual private hosting is the best of both worlds
VPS hosting offers the lower costs of shared hosting and the privacy of dedicated hosting. VPS hosting uses virtualization technology to split one server into multiple private servers. This drives down the cost of using the server, just like it does with shared hosting, but VPS is more secure than shared hosting, for several reasons:
- Because you share a server with other VPS users, each website enjoys a higher level of security
- You’re allowed to modify the security of your own private server
- Because you have your own private server, your website is less likely to be affected by other websites on the server
Once you’ve taken steps to ensure your hosting is secure, you can move on to the next step:
2. Strong passwords
A strong password is the second line of defense against a data breach. The strongest passwords are difficult, if not impossible, to guess, because they’re often a combination of random letters (both uppercase and lowercase), as well as numbers and symbols. The longer the password, the better.
Also, be sure to choose unique passwords for each entry point to you website, so that gaining access to one entry point doesn’t blast open the doors to all the others.
After you’ve made your passwords sufficiently strong, see if you can set up methods to lock users out if an incorrect password is entered a certain number of times.
3. Storing data in multiple places
When you store data in multiple (protected) places, you make it harder for cybercriminals and disgruntled employees to completely destroy your website just by gaining access to one data storage area.
If something feels wrong, trust your gut. If you notice that a certain employee has been looking shifty lately, take extra steps to protect your data. If you get an email from one of your trusted vendors, but something about the choice of words feels unfamiliar, make a phone call to verify the source of the email before you pass on confidential information.
Trust that tiny little voice in your head that tells you when something’s off. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
5. Limited user access
Every person who has access to sensitive information is a potential way for hackers to get into your system. Each person with admin-level access to your website might become disgruntled or greedy or might accidentally leave themselves logged in when they have to step away from their device while accessing sensitive data. To reduce the number of weak points on your website, limit the number of people with high-level access to sensitive data on your website.
6. Encryption software
Encryption software will be your last line of defense if your data is breached. If unauthorized persons have somehow managed to get past all your other defenses, encryption software will at least help ensure that the stolen data is useless to them, because they won’t be able to interpret it.
Knowing how to protect your website is the first step towards reducing the likelihood of having your website fall victim to a data breach. It’s almost impossible to make any website completely immune to a data breach, but knowing what a data breach is and taking steps to protect your website will go a long way towards fortifying your website against attempts to breach your data.