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Egress, the provider of human layer data security solutions, released their 2020 Outbound Email Data Breach Report, which highlights the true scale of data security risks related to email use. 93% of IT leaders surveyed said that their organisation had suffered data breaches through outbound email in the last 12 months. On average, the survey found, an email data breach happens approximately every 12 working hours.

Rising outbound email volumes due to COVID-19-related remote working and the digitisation of manual processes are also contributing to escalating risk. 94% of respondents reported an increase in email traffic since the onset of COVID-19 and 70% believe that working remotely increases the risk of sensitive data being put at risk from outbound email data breaches.

The study, independently conducted by Arlington Research on behalf of Egress, interviewed 538 senior managers responsible for IT security in the UK and US across vertical sectors including financial services, healthcare, banking and legal.

Insights from the report

Key insights from respondents include:

  • 93% had experienced data breaches via outbound email in the past 12 months
  • Organisations reported at least an average of 180 incidents per year when sensitive data was put at risk, equating to approximately one every 12 working hours
  • The most common breach types were replying to spear-phishing emails (80%); emails sent to the wrong recipients (80%); incorrect file attachments (80%)
  • 62% rely on people-led reporting to identify outbound email data breaches
  • 94% of surveyed organisations have seen outbound email volume increase during COVID-19. 68% say they have seen increases of between 26 and 75%
  • 70% believe that remote working raises the risk of sensitive data being put at risk from outbound email data breaches

Root cause of breach incidents

In terms of the impact of the most serious breach incident, on an individual-level, employees received a formal warning

When asked to identify the root cause of their organisation’s most serious breach incident in the past year, the most common factor was “an employee being tired or stressed”. The second most cited factor was “remote working”.

In terms of the impact of the most serious breach incident, on an individual-level, employees received a formal warning in 46% of incidents, were fired in 27% and legal action was brought against them in 28%.

At an organisational-level, 33% said it had caused financial damage and more than one-quarter said it had led to an investigation by a regulatory body.

Traditional email security tools

In one-third of the most serious breaches suffered, employees had not made use of the technology provided

The research also found that 16% of those surveyed had no technology in place to protect data shared by outbound email. Where technology was deployed, its adoption was patchy: 38% have Data Loss Prevention (DLP) tools in place, while 44% have message level encryption and 45% have password protection for sensitive documents.

However, the study also found that, in one-third of the most serious breaches suffered, employees had not made use of the technology provided to prevent the breach.

Outbound email security risks mitigation

Organisations need technologies, like machine learning, to create a contextual understanding of individual users"

Egress CEO Tony Pepper comments: “Unfortunately, legacy email security tools and the native controls within email environments, such as Outlook for Microsoft 365, are unable to mitigate the outbound email security risks that modern organisations face today. They rely on static rules or user-led decisions and are unable to learn from individual employees’ behaviour patterns. This means they can’t detect any abnormal changes that put data at risk – such as Outlook autocomplete suggesting the wrong recipient and a tired employee adding them to an email.” 

This problem is only going to get worse with increased remote working and higher email volumes creating prime conditions for outbound email data breaches of a type that traditional DLP tools simply cannot handle. Instead, organisations need intelligent technologies, like machine learning, to create a contextual understanding of individual users that spots errors such as wrong recipients, incorrect file attachments or responses to phishing emails, and alerts the user before they make a mistake.”

Reporting of outbound email data breach

When an outbound email data breach happens, IT leaders were most likely to find out about it from employees

Organisations still cannot paint a full picture of the risks, relying on people-led reporting to identify email breaches, despite severe repercussions

When an outbound email data breach happens, IT leaders were most likely to find out about it from employees. 20% said they would be alerted by the email recipient, 18% felt another employee would report it, while 24% said the employee who sent the email would disclose their error.

However, given the penalties that respondents said were in place for employees who cause a breach, it is not guaranteed that they will be keen to own up, especially if the incident is serious. 46% said that the employee who caused a breach was given a formal warning, while legal action was taken in 28% of cases. In 27% of serious breach cases, respondents said the employee responsible was fired.

Safeguard both employees and data

Tony Pepper comments: “Relying on tired, stressed employees to notice a mistake and then report themselves or a colleague when a breach happens is unrealistic, especially given the repercussions they will face. With all the factors at play in people-led data breach reporting, we often find organisations are experiencing 10 times the number of incidents than their aware of."

"It’s imperative that we build a culture where workers are supported and protected against outbound email breach risk with technology that adapts to the pressures they face and stops them from making simple mistakes in the first place. As workers get used to more regular remote working and reliance on email continues to grow, organisations need to step up to safeguard both employees and data from rising breach risk.”

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