The researchers found participants were not aware of 74% of the breaches.
Most participants in a recent study had no idea that their email addresses and other personal information had been compromised in an average of five data breaches each.
It’s been nine years since the LinkedIn data breach, eight years since Adobe customers were victims of cyber attackers, and four years since Equifax made headlines for the exposure of private information of millions of people.
Researchers from the University of Michigan School of Information showed 413 people facts from up to three breaches that involved their own personal information. The researchers found people were not aware of 74% of the breaches.
“This is concerning. If people don’t know that their information was exposed in a breach, they cannot protect themselves properly against a breach’s implications, e.g., an increased risk of identity theft,” says doctoral candidate Yixin Zou.
As reported in a conference paper, researchers also found that most of those breached blamed their own personal behaviors for the events—using the same password across multiple accounts; keeping the same email for a long time; and signing up for “sketchy” accounts—with only 14% attributing the problem to external factors.
“While there’s some responsibility on consumers to be careful about who they share their personal information with, the fault for breaches almost always lies with insufficient security practices by the affected company, not by the victims of the breach,” says Adam Aviv, associate professor of computer science at George Washington University.
The Have I Been Pwned database used in this study lists nearly 500 online breaches and 10 million compromised accounts over the last decade. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, the overall number of data breaches affecting Americans is even higher, reporting more than 1,108 breaches in the United States in 2020 alone.
Prior research asked about concerns and reactions to data breaches in general, or it relied on self-reported data to determine how a particular incident affected people. This study used public records in the Have I Been Pwned dataset of who was affected by breaches. The research team gathered 792 responses involving 189 unique breaches and 66 different exposed data types. Of the 431 participant email addresses queried, 73% of participants were exposed in one or more breaches, with the highest number of 20.
Of all information that was breached, email addresses were compromised the most, followed by passwords, usernames, IP addresses, and dates of birth.
Most participants expressed moderate concern and were most worried about the leak of physical addresses, passwords, and phone numbers. In response to their compromised accounts, they reported taking action or an intention to change passwords for 50% of the breaches.
“It could be that some of the breached services were considered ‘not important’ because the breached account did not contain sensitive information. However, low concern about a breach may also be explained by people not fully considering or being aware of how leaked personal information could potentially be misused and harm them,” says Peter Mayer, postdoctoral researcher at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology.
Risks range from credential stuffing—or using a leaked email address and password to gain access to other accounts of the victim—to identity theft and fraud.
Most of the breaches never made the news, and often they involved little or no notification to affected individuals.
“Today’s data breach notification requirements are insufficient,” Zou says. “Either people are not being notified by breached companies, or the notifications are crafted so poorly that people might get an email notification or letter but disregard it. In prior work, we analyzed data breach notification letters sent to consumers and found that they often require advanced reading skills and obscure risks.”
At the end of the study, researchers showed participants the full list of breaches affecting them and provided information for taking protective steps against potential risks from data breaches.
How to Avoid Data Breaches
When your data has been stolen:
- Check whether accounts were part of a breach using free services such as https://haveibeenpwned.com/ or https://monitor.firefox.com/.
- Read breach notifications carefully.
- Websites like the FTC’s https://identitytheft.gov/ can help create a recovery plan after identity theft.
- Make sure to change the password of the breached account and any others for which the same password was used. Doing this once should be enough unless there is a new breach.
- Sign up for identity monitoring services you get offered. Though not perfect, they are better than nothing.
- If you experience actual harm from a breach you may also be entitled to further support.
To prevent future data breaches:
- Use a unique password for each online account. No one can remember dozens of these so it’s best to use a password manager to store and create strong passwords.
- Use two-factor authentication, wherever possible, that requires a code by phone in addition to a username and password in order to access an account.
- Freeze credit reports at the three major bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) to make it more difficult for identity thieves to cause financial harm. See here.
- Consider using services such as Sign in with Apple to keep an email address private when creating new accounts (the service provider only sees an email address uniquely created for that account).
“The findings from this study further underline the failure and shortcomings of current data and security breach notification laws,” says Florian Schaub, assistant professor of information at the University of Michigan.
“What we find again and again in our work is that important legislation and regulation, which is meant to protect consumers, is rendered ineffective in practice by poor communication efforts by the affected companies that need to be held more accountable for securing customer data.”
The researchers point to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation that legislates hefty fines for companies that don’t protect consumers as a means toward solving the issue. The law led companies worldwide to retool their privacy programs and safeguards.