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Top 7 Causes of Data Loss and How to Combat Them

Picture of Tracy Rock

Tracy Rock

Director of Marketing @ Invenio IT


Data Loss

What are the most common causes of data loss today?

The top causes of data loss for businesses are human error, hardware failure, malware and other forms of cyberattacks. Day to day, the most common reason why businesses lose data is that files are accidentally deleted. However, threats like ransomware and server failure tend to cause the most damage.

What does this mean for businesses today?

At a time when data loss costs small companies as much as $75 billion a year in downtime alone, it’s never been more important to protect your data. But you can’t obtain true protection without first understanding the threats.

Roughly 1 out of 5 businesses experiences more than 22 data-loss incidents every year, according to a report highlighted by PC World. The reasons are numerous: data goes missing, gets destroyed and even gets stolen.

In this post, we uncover the top dangers that threaten your data (and your entire business). 

1) Human error

Oops! Jim from Accounting just deleted that important spreadsheet again.

Sally from Marketing accidentally dragged a folder into trash.

Bob from HR suddenly has no emails—he’s not sure why.

You get the idea.

Ask any IT person what the common cause of data loss is at their company, and they’ll tell you the same thing: human error. At larger organizations, data is accidentally deleted on a nearly daily basis.

Sometimes employees are immediately aware of their mistakes; sometimes they don’t realize it until days or weeks later. In either case, that data is often gone forever unless you have a dependable backup system in place.

Roughly 75% of data loss is caused by human erroraccording to the IT Policy Compliance Group.

Keep in mind, data loss can also be caused by misconfigured servers and other infrastructure mismanagement. So it’s not just the non-IT workers you need to worry about.

We’re all human, after all. Mistakes are bound to happen. Regardless, it’s your job to make sure your data is protected.

How to combat it:

  • For faster recoveries, with fewer hiccups, choose a data backup system that allows you to quickly recover individual files and folders, in addition to larger datasets from a recovery point.
  • Smart backup software can help to identify lost data. Datto’s BDR solutions, for example, feature a web-based interface called Backup Insights, which makes it easy to quickly identify files that have been modified, created or deleted between any two backups. Files can be rapidly recovered even when the file names and the deletion dates are unknown.
  • Limit user access to only the files and folders they need. This can reduce the risk of accidental deletion in unauthorized folders. Plus, it can limit the spread of malware across a network, as we discuss further below.

2) Natural disasters

Natural disasters have always been a risk for businesses, but a changing climate could make things a lot worse in the years ahead.

Consider this …

  • Four of the worst California wildfires in history occurred within the last six years.
  • Four of the most extreme hurricane seasons in U.S. history have occurred within the last 15 years.
  • Tornadoes, which once rarely occurred outside the Midwest, are increasingly occurring on the East Coast, hitting places like New York City and Massachusetts.
  • Rising global temperatures will not only cause more intense heat waves, but also more extreme snowstorms in certain parts of the U.S., due to a weaker, less stable jet stream, researchers say.

But let’s take climate change out of the picture for a minute. Even then, natural disasters remain one of the top causes of data loss for businesses. Fire and flooding are especially common at office buildings around the world.

40 to 60% of small businesses never reopen their doors after a disaster, according to FEMA – so the stakes are high.

Natural disasters clearly pose a safety risk to your staff and your office structures. But also, they pose a major risk to IT infrastructure. If your server room is flooded or destroyed by fire, your business-critical data could be destroyed. And when you have no other backups available, your business could be literally dead in the water.

How to combat it:

  • Make sure your data is backed up to the cloud, in addition to your on-site systems. This ensures that your data can always be recovered, even if your on-site backups can’t.
  • Protect your on-site infrastructure with the latest fire suppression and flood prevention. Even flood sensors, which alert you to the presence of water in your server room, can greatly reduce the impact of a flooding event.
  • Limit downtime even further by deploying a BDR platform that lets you virtualize your data in the cloud. Datto’s Instant Virtualization capabilities, for example, let you boot your backup as a virtual machine in seconds, from anywhere. This gives you the quickest access to your data, as well as the applications that run your business, even if your on-site infrastructure has been destroyed.
  • Sometimes a mere power outage can cause a lack of access to data and costly downtime. You can defend against this common scenario by installing backup generators on the premises.

You’ll never be able to stop Mother Nature. But with the right preparation, you can ensure your data survives even the worst natural disasters.

3) Hardware failure

When technology breaks, your data is put at risk.

Hardware damage and system malfunction are among the top causes of data loss. It happens every day at businesses of all sizes, all over the globe. At best, your tech fails and the data in transit is lost forever. At worst, entire drives of data stop working or are wiped out by a software bug.

There are numerous kinds of IT malfunction that can cause trouble for your data. Here are just a few:

  • Hard drive failure
  • Operating system crashes
  • Software errors and crashes (more on this below)
  • Network hardware failure
  • Physical damage to hardware

Let’s focus on the hard drive failure for a minute. After all, your hard drives are where your data lives. So when the drive fails, your critical files can be corrupted and unrecoverable.

The problem is: all hard drives have a shelf life. They all fail eventually. Like all mechanical parts, the spinning disks and moving parts inside a traditional hard drive eventually slow down or break. 

One study found that as much as 50% of hard drives fail every five years. It’s not a question of “if,” but “when.”

Factor in the risks of network hardware failure and other damage, and you’ve got a whole boatload of data loss accidents just waiting to happen, any day of the week.

How to combat it:

  • If you can’t afford to lose any data, then deploy BDR technology that allows for a more frequent backup schedule. This will allow you to set an aggressive Recovery Point Objective (RPO), so that your data loss after a hardware malfunction is minimal.
  • Datto uses Inverse Chain Technology, which allows for backups up to every 5 minutes, while also eliminating the most commonly occurring problems in traditional backup chains.
  • Be aware of your hardware lifespan. Set schedules for upgrading various components every few years (based on manufacturer recommendations) to prevent unexpected failures.

4) Ransomware, viruses and other malware

Malware is one of the most frustrating causes of data loss, because it’s a threat that’s constantly evolving. It never totally goes away.

Every day, your anti-malware systems are blocking malicious viruses, bad websites, suspicious attachments, bad IP addresses, hijackers, worms, adware and more. But tomorrow, those threats will be back. And there will be new ones too: new strains of malware that your anti-virus systems don’t even know about it.

And, don’t even get us started on ransomware!

Ransomware has quickly become one of the biggest data killers today, costing small businesses billions of dollars a year in downtime alone. Attacks are happening every 40 seconds on average, locking businesses out of their data and bringing operations to a screeching halt.

But while ransomware is getting all the attention these days, other forms of malware remain just as dangerous.

  • Software update supply chain attacks” (when malware is discreetly implanted into otherwise-legitimate software updates) were up 200% in 2017, according to Symantec.
  • Mobile malware was up 52% last year, infecting data on the handheld devices that are increasingly used on business networks.
  • In one survey conducted by a leading data backup technology provider, 29% of respondents said their top causes of data loss were malware and viruses.

Not all malware targets your data with the same ferocity as ransomware. But all it takes is one virus to compromise some of your business-critical files or create instability in your software and operating systems, leading to a catastrophic data loss. 

How to combat it:

  • Use business-grade anti-virus and anti-malware protection and make sure it updates automatically, every day.
  • Consider BDR technology with built-in malware protection. For example, Datto’s backup systems automatically detect the signs of a ransomware infection, quickly alerting administrators to roll back to a clean recovery point. Protection like this can vastly reduce the scale and spread of a ransomware attack.

5) Software failure 

We all know the frustration of software crashing on us or freezing at the worst possible time.

Maybe you’ve just imported a ton of data into a spreadsheet or performed a batch edit on records with a CMS application. Then everything freezes. And while you wait patiently, praying that the application will un-freeze by itself, it never happens. You have to force quit. And sure enough, you lost all your work.

Software failure is one of the most common causes of data loss for businesses. In research highlighted by TechRadar, 1 in 10 respondents said they lost data due to software failure.

When it happens, users lose any unsaved work, resulting in significant productivity losses. But that’s only the beginning. Similar to hardware failure, a sudden application crash can also cause large swaths of data to become corrupted and unretrievable. That loss alone can be extremely costly (especially if no backup is in place). But in some cases, the software will need to be completely reinstalled, ultimately hampering productivity even further. 

One of the worst aspects of software failure is its unpredictability. You don’t know when it’s going to happen, and afterwards it may not be clear why it happened. However, there are some steps you can take to prevent data loss when it occurs:

How to combat it: 

  • Patch your software and O/S frequently by installing the latest updates as soon as they become available. This can greatly reduce the bugs and system errors that lead to data loss.
  • Make sure your data backups protect all your application data. If your applications store data locally on unprotected endpoint machines or outside the network, then this is a recipe for disaster if software failure occurs.
  • Only use software from trusted developers. If you’re using custom applications that were developed in-house or by third parties, and the software is constantly crashing, then it’s time to reevaluate your options. Stick to software from established, well-known developers, unless your needs absolutely warrant a custom deployment.
  • Be careful with integrations. One of the most common causes of data loss from software failure is faulty integrations. Before adding third-party tools or leveraging API capabilities, make sure the software is safe to integrate.

6) Migration errors

This one often falls under the category of human error, but not always. Regardless of the cause, a lot can go wrong when large amounts of data are being moved and updated. And when those errors occur, data is often lost.

Most commonly, data is overwritten. The reason for this can be as simple as misnaming a destination folder (which is why migration problems are typically caused by human error). Other times, it may not be so clear what caused the problem or where it went. Botched migrations can destroy data in a number of ways, including corruption from faulty configurations and unexplained deletions.

Why migrate in the first place? Often this is necessary when deploying new software or hardware, or when you’re implementing new folder hierarchy (such as for security, efficiency or other reasons). System upgrades, data consolidations and application integrations are also common reasons for migration.

So, how do you prevent data loss from migration errors? With a lot of the same safeguards that we’ve already covered above …

How to combat it:

  • Always back up your data before migration, especially if you’ll be moving large amounts of data. This should be a new, one-time backup that is outside of your regular backup schedule.
  • Ask before you integrate. If you’re integrating a new application or tool, make sure the integration is safe before you touch any data. For example, if you’re adding a new third-party application, confirm whether it’s fully compatible with your existing systems or has known issues.
  • Review configurations carefully. Remember that migration problems are commonly caused by mistakes during the configuration stage. Review all settings carefully and if you’re not sure about something, reach out to the vendor or another IT professional.

7) Malicious deletion

Nobody likes to think their coworkers would purposefully sabotage company data, but it happens surprisingly often. In a survey conducted by Aberdeen Group, 7% of companies reported they had lost data due to malicious deletion by their own employees or contracts.

These incidents are sometimes shocking enough to make headlines, as was the case in 2016 when an IT administrator was charged with felony for intentionally deleting 615 backup files before leaving his job at a software firm. More recently, a Singapore man was fined S$5,000 for maliciously deleting files from his employer’s Google Drive account. The reason he did it? Because he’d been fired.

Employee firings are often the impetus for malicious file deletion. Regardless of where the blame lay for the termination, if an employee believes they have been slighted by the company, they may try to get payback in the last moments before their exit.

That’s where termination policies can play an important role in preventing this type of data loss …

How to combat it:

  • Practice the rule of “least privilege.” This is the idea that each user should only have access to the files/folders they need to perform their jobs. So if any malicious deletion occurs, it will be limited to those folders.
  • Coordinate terminations with IT. Don’t give terminated employees the time to commit misconduct before they exit the company. Terminated employees should immediately lose access to data and systems, ideally at the same time that their termination is announced.
  • Use stronger backup technology to detect when sudden large-scale deletions or file changes are occurring, such as with Datto’s Rapid Rollback. This allows you to quickly restore only the affected files, without having to reimage the entire machine. 

Protect your business from the top causes of data loss

Get more information on how your business can prevent data loss with smarter backup and disaster recovery solutions from Datto. Request a free demo today, or contact us at (646) 395-1170 or

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