2018’s most shocking data breaches

For one of the most popular social media channels (no need to mention which), 2018 was a difficult year. It had already somehow ‘leaked’ 87 million users’ sensitive data in 2015, in what became known widely as the Cambridge Analytica Scandal. In 2017 into late 2018, it lost another 29 million users’ data.

But while everyone was up in arms over these high-profile breaches, there were plenty more corporate giants suffering data breaches and ransomware attacks at the hands of continuously evolving hacker techniques – many of them affecting way more users than ‘that social media channel’. Let’s take a closer look, and see how they could have been avoided…

What is a data breach, and how does it happen?

Put simply, a data breach is loss of sensitive and/or personal data that happens when hackers identify a weak spot in a business’ security system, and gain illegal access to, for example, system and personal passwords, bank details and transactional information, confidential communications, and so on. Typically, they will then either sell that information on, or demand a ransom from the business to return or ’unfreeze’ the data (and often to not mention the data breach, so the business protects its reputation for data security).

Aadhar – 1.1billion

The biggest data breach of 2018 was a staggering 100 times bigger than the Cambridge Analytica scandal mentioned above. It affected Aadhar – India’s government ID database, and compromised the personal information of over 1.1billion of India’s population of 1.4billion!

There are numerous other examples from all over the world – many concerning well-known businesses and organisations, whose reputation and value can be severely damaged. The knock-on effects tend to concern individuals, though, whose privacy, finances or general day-to-day can suddenly be disrupted.

Exactis – 340million

In June 2018, an attack on Exactis, a Florida-based data broker, affected data relating to around 340 million people. Phone numbers, addresses, and valuable marketing data such as personal interests, preferences and characteristics were breached. Remarkably, it had been left on a ‘publicly accessible server’. It remains unclear whether any of the data was actually removed or used, but that it was even accessible to anyone other than Exactis or the people whose information it held, is quite worrying.

Google+ – 52.5million

Google will shut down its Google+ service in April 2019, after a second data breach in 2017-2018 exposed the personal profile data of 52.5million users. The previous breach, in 2015, had affected ‘only’ around 500,000 users.

How to prevent a data breach

Firstly, it’s important to note that a data breach can be as much down to poor data management and protection as to determined hackers. Often, as the above examples show, data loss can be inadvertent, and sometimes it’s simply ‘left lying around’. We should also recognise that hackers don’t only target the big names. In fact, it’s arguably easier and more lucrative for them to target larger numbers of smaller businesses, which may be less mindful of data security, and therefore easier to hack. Using this approach, demanding ‘affordable’ ransoms can also be more effective. In addition, it can be more about the nature of the business than its size – some data is more precious, sensitive or ‘useful’, so hackers will often target businesses that hold specific types of data.

Hopefully, that’s got you thinking about assessing your own data security set-up, and making potential data breaches and ransomware attacks far less likely. The good news is, it’s fairly straightforward.

A fully patched and monitored IT system is by far the best way to prevent data breaches and ransomware attacks. This layered approach needs to run alongside a reliable offsite backup solution. A reputable cloud backup provider will understand (and drastically reduce) the likelihood of data loss from a breach, whatever the nature of the business and the data it creates and stores.

What is ransomware?

Ransomware attacks essentially involve hackers using malicious software to seize data once they’ve found a way through a business or organisation’s systems. In effect, ransomware attacks take your data hostage, and the hacker then demands money in return for its safe release – hence the name. Ransomware attacks are on the rise, and fast becoming as significant a reputational and financial threat as large-scale data breaches, and also highlight the pervasive and continuously evolving nature of hacking. Here are some of the most notable ransomware attacks of recent years :


This 2015 ransomware attack focused on Android smartphones, what with more and more people storing and accessing sensitive data on the move. Originating from Eastern Europe, it mostly targeted and encrypted US users’ files, making them completely inaccessible to anyone but the ransomware owner – until the ‘affordable’ ransom was paid.


This was the biggest and most disruptive series of ransomware attacks, and had global reach – spreading from a few cases in Europe to over 250,000 instances in over 116 countries in just four days in 2017. Part of its ‘success’ was down to it not requiring users to do anything – only for security to be lacking.


NotPetya wasn’t as big or disruptive as WannaCry, but it proved that businesses and organisations all over the world still weren’t taking ransomware attacks seriously: it used many of the same unmonitored and unprotected ‘routes’ as Wannacry had just weeks earlier in 2017.

Secure, encrypted backups are just part of an effective defence against data breaches and ransomware attacks . Preferably, not even the reseller will have a note of, or store the encryption key, and passwords should always be treated with as much care as the data they protect.

In an increasingly data-driven world, the threat of data breaches and ransomware attacks is ever-present, and ever-changing. However, there will always be ways to protect against it, and the best backup providers will monitor threats continuously, and help businesses large and small stay one step ahead of the game.