Customers Aren’t the Only Victims: 5 Stages Of Data Breach Grief

What can we learn from organizations that have experienced a data beach? For one thing, infosec teams on the front lines of cyber security are also victims.

Ricky Link, Managing Director, Coalfire Systems, Southwest Region

February 25, 2015

3 Min Read

Data breaches are now common events that affect an organization in many ways besides attorney fees, lost business, reputational damage, and system remediation costs. Back in 1970, in a now classic book, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying, which identified five stages of grieving and emotions that terminally ill patients experience. It is my contention that organizations have to deal with similar data breach grief.

  1. Denial. The organization’s initial reaction helps soften the realization that technology, people or business processes have broken down and customer data has been exposed, leaked, or compromised. This stage may last for a few hours, days, or months depending on when the organization confirmed the breach.     

  2. Anger. All organizations have irate doubters who refuse to acknowledge a data breach was caused by a software programming error or a lost laptop with unencrypted data, or that the compromised system did not follow established security hardening procedures.

  3. Bargaining. There are always people in an organization who will insist that they just need another chance and they insist that a breach will not happen again. This is despite the fact that customer data is already in the “Internet wild.” Promising to do better in the future is neither timely nor practical.

  4. Depression. All organizations wish they had handled things differently. There will be individuals who will be unable to concentrate and second-guess their plan of action to contain the breach.       

  5. Acceptance. It is typically very difficult to recognize when the critical fifth and final stage is reached after a confirmed data breach. However, it is at this point that management understands that security needs to be an ongoing process in order to protect the confidentiality, availability, and integrity of the customer data.   

{Table 1}

Taken together, these breaches total more than 100 million credit card numbers, over 313 million personal records, and at least a few dozen celebrities in shots their publicists did not pre-approve for release.

What can we learn from organizations that have experienced a confirmed data beach? For one thing, individuals on the front line of defending their organizations against the entire world of cyber criminals may be victims themselves. They may experience the same disappointment and grief as a customer whose data is compromised. They are confused. They may feel a lack of focus and confidence in themselves. They may have sleepless nights and an increased level of anxiety.

The modern, real-world cybercrime landscape is dynamic and ever-changing, and the people, processes, and technologies required to remain secure are constantly expanding. There are ingenious and well-orchestrated attacks on various organizations of all types and sizes, as noted in the table above, that cause executives to lose their jobs. Chief information security officers are constantly barraged with demands to do more with less, while keeping the organization secure at the same time.

Data breaches are always costly and disruptive in an emergency situation. They can be just as taxing on an organization’s employees. Of course, most of this stress can be avoided by preventing a security incident before it happens. As painful as an IT audit or security penetration test may feel while you are going through it, it is simple in comparison to the stress and stakes involved in a serious data breach.

About the Author(s)

Ricky Link

Managing Director, Coalfire Systems, Southwest Region

Ricky Link is the managing director in the Dallas office of Coalfire Systems. Coalfire is a fast-growing IT governance, risk and compliance firm, serving as a trusted advisor to security-conscious leaders in all industry groups. He is a member of the senior management team and leads the southwest region's security, audit and compliance services.

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