The Difference Between Data Breaches and Cyberattacks

The cybersecurity industry is full of technical jargon that is alien to a lot of people, but there’s one phrase you’ve probably heard before; ‘cyberattack’. It seems like every other day, some major tech company is reportedly the victim of another cyberattack, but what does this mean exactly?

A lot of people might think a ‘cyberattack’ is just a euphemism that tech companies use to avoid admitting they experienced a data breach. This may be the case on more than a few occasions, after all; customers today are very sensitive when it comes to their data. That said, the technical definitions of a ‘data breach’ and a ‘cyberattack’ are very different, let’s discuss them.

What Is a Data Breach?

A data breach occurs when information is stolen or removed from a system without the owner’s knowledge or consent. A data breach might happen to a small business or a huge corporation. Credit card numbers, client data, trade secrets, and national security information are examples of sensitive, proprietary, or private information that might be stolen.

The consequences of a data breach might include damage to the target company’s reputation as a result of a perceived “betrayal of trust.” If relevant documents are part of the information stolen, victims and their customers may face financial damages.

Types of Data Breaches

Data breaches are surprisingly common, and even the biggest tech companies aren’t immune to having their data stolen by cybercriminals. Here are just a few types of data breaches both individuals and corporations need to look out for.


When you receive a notification saying that your phone or computer has been hacked, this is known as ransomware. In this scenario, the individual will inform you that if you pay a price, they will hand it over to you and not disclose it to the public. This can range from a few hundred dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Many businesses engage risk management solution providers to prevent releasing or deleting sensitive or compromising information.

Human Error

While this may seem absurd, humans are extremely capable of making mistakes, and they do so frequently. Errors that may cost their firm tens of thousands of dollars, if not millions.

A negligent employee at Apple even fell victim to this when a prototype of one of their new iPhones was left lying about. The specs and hardware of the yet-to-be-released phone were all over the Internet in a matter of hours.

It’s all too usual for an employee to leave a computer, phone, or file somewhere they shouldn’t and have it stolen. It might jeopardize not just the new prototypes you’re attempting to conceal, but also customer or patient data.


Phishing attacks are carried out by third-party hackers who build websites that appear to be completely authentic. For example, they might create a site that looks exactly like PayPal and urge you to check in to make a necessary update. You’ll log in and discover that instead of merely signing in to your account, you’ve provided your password to someone else.

This scam is quite prevalent among colleges, and students may frequently get emails from a third party acting as the school, requesting confirmation of their login credentials. Once they do, the hacker gets their login credentials and may do anything they want with them. Phishing attempts have also been spotted targeting Office 365 apps like Sharepoint and OneNote.

What is a Cyberattack?

A cyberattack is a hostile act that aims to harm data, steal data, or otherwise disrupt the experience of a person or business online. Computer viruses, data breaches, Denial of Service (DoS) assaults, and other attack vectors are examples of cyberattacks

A successful cyberattack is aimed at gaining unauthorized access, disrupting, damaging, or stealing a company or individual’s personal information, intellectual property, or any other kind of sensitive data.

The Difference Between Data Breaches and Cyberattacks

The difference between data breaches and cyberattacks is complex, because there is no one answer, and circumstances can change depending on context. Take, for example, a DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service) Attack. In a DDoS attack, cybercriminals will intentionally overwhelm a server with traffic, disrupting websites, internet platforms, and businesses from functioning. In this case, what separates a data breach from a cyber attack can be seen as the intent of the cybercriminal. DDoS are carried out to disrupt user experience online, sabotage businesses, or simply crashing networks, the intent is not to steal data.

In other circumstances, a cyber attack can be considered the first step in a cybercriminal’s plan to commit a data breach.

When Does a Cyberattack Become a Data Breach?

So, when does a cyber attack become a data breach? Simple, when there has been a guaranteed theft of a person or organization’s data, as the result of a cyberattack. The impact of a cyberattack is usually felt immediately, but even the best technology firms might not realize they’ve been the victims of a data breach until it’s already too late, and their stolen data is exposed publicly.

How Organizations Respond to a Data Breach vs. a Cyberattack

For businesses, a significant distinction between a cyberattack and a data breach is how to respond. While there are just a few rules and regulations governing when to disclose cyber events, there is a slew of laws and regulations governing data breaches, some of which carry stiff penalties. If your company experiences a data breach, you may be required to notify authorities immediately, often as soon as one hour after discovering the incident.

A Data Breach Can Occur Offline

Cyberattacks specifically only occur via the internet, with cybercriminals attacking a business’s network. A data breach, on the other hand, can start offline. For example, if an important password was to get leaked, it would allow just about anyone to gain access to sensitive data and personal information.

In Conclusion

Data Breaches and Cyber Attacks are two different things but they do go hand in hand. It is crucial that businesses these days have a plan in place to both prevent cyber attacks and respond to them. If you are a smaller company, it may be worth while to look into hiring a private cyber security firm to audit your business for vulnerabilities.