Research reveals nearly 50% of employees accidentally leak sensitive company data

Research conducted by data security company Clearswift has shown that 45% of those employees surveyed have mistakenly shared e-mails containing key data with unintended recipients, including personal information (15%), bank details (9%), attachments (13%) and other confidential text (8%).

The research, which surveyed 600 senior business decision-makers and 1,200 employees across the UK, the US, Germany and Australia, also found that employees regularly receive these unintentional e-mails, as well as being guilty of sending them, in turn highlighting an inbound and outbound opportunity for data leakages.

27% of employees claim to have received e-mails containing personal information in error from people outside of their company, with 26% also admitting to receiving attachments in error and 12% stating that they had wrongly received personal bank details. 

“With the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) now very firmly in view, the new tenet of shared responsibility makes the problem of receiving and sharing unauthorised information a serious issue,” said Dr Guy Bunker, senior vice-president for products at Clearswift. “e-mail communication is a real pitfall for organisations trying to comply with the GDPRStray bank details and ‘hidden’ information in attachments, spreadsheets or reports can create a serious data loss risk. The occasional e-mail going awry may seem innocuous, but when multiplied by the amount of employees within a business, the risk becomes more severe and could lead to a firm falling foul of the new GDPR penalties. If contravened, this can lead to a firm having the ability to process data removed, which could see some businesses grind to a halt.”

Opportunity to act

The research also found that, upon receiving a misplaced e-mail, 31% of employees said they would read the e-mail, with 12% even admitting they would scroll through to read the entire e-mail chain. 45% of employees did say that they would alert the sender to their mistake, giving them the opportunity to take some action. However, a lowly 27% said they would delete the e-mail from their inboxes and deleted items leaving an element of uncertainty.”

Dr Guy Bunker

Dr Guy Bunker

Less than half (45%) of employees were familiar with the agreed process or course of action to take upon receiving an e-mail from someone in another company where they were not the intended recipient, while 22% admitted there was no formal process in place whatsoever in their organisation for such situations.

Bunker added: “To offset the inevitable risk associated with e-mail communications, companies need a clear strategy encompassing people, processes and technology. Instilling the values of being a ‘good data citizen’ can engender a sense of data consciousness in the workplace, ensuring that employees are aware of responsible disclosure, and with whom this responsibility sits upon receiving an e-mail in error. However, a formally agreed process or course of action is also a ‘must’ in this day and age.”

In conclusion, Bunker informed Risk UK: “There’s no silver bullet, but technology can offer assurances to help mitigate risks. Adaptive Data Loss Prevention technologies can automate the detection and protection of critical information contained in e-mails and attachments, removing only the information which breaks policy and leaving the rest to continue on to its destination.”

About the Author
Brian Sims BA (Hons) Hon FSyI, Editor, Risk UK (Pro-Activ Publications) Beginning his career in professional journalism at The Builder Group in March 1992, Brian was appointed Editor of Security Management Today in November 2000 having spent eight years in engineering journalism across two titles: Building Services Journal and Light & Lighting. In 2005, Brian received the BSIA Chairman’s Award for Promoting The Security Industry and, a year later, the Skills for Security Special Award for an Outstanding Contribution to the Security Business Sector. In 2008, Brian was The Security Institute’s nomination for the Association of Security Consultants’ highly prestigious Imbert Prize and, in 2013, was a nominated finalist for the Institute's George van Schalkwyk Award. An Honorary Fellow of The Security Institute, Brian serves as a Judge for the BSIA’s Security Personnel of the Year Awards and the Securitas Good Customer Award. Between 2008 and 2014, Brian pioneered the use of digital media across the security sector, including webinars and Audio Shows. Brian’s actively involved in 50-plus security groups on LinkedIn and hosts the popular Risk UK Twitter site. Brian is a frequent speaker on the conference circuit. He has organised and chaired conference programmes for both IFSEC International and ASIS International and has been published in the national media. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk UK at Pro-Activ Publications in July 2014 and as Editor of The Paper (Pro-Activ Publications' dedicated business newspaper for security professionals) in September 2015. Brian was appointed Editor of Risk Xtra at Pro-Activ Publications in May 2018.

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