What Is a Computer Security Breach?

Some computer security breaches have involved the theft of customers' financial information, including credit card numbers.
Social Security numbers may be the target of a computer security breach.
Computer security breaches can cost millions of dollars in damage and may result in stiff penalties for the offender.
Hackers focus on breaking into sensitive computer systems.
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  • Written By: Christian Petersen
  • Edited By: Susan Barwick
  • Last Modified Date: 13 July 2014
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A computer security breach is an incursion into a computer or network of computers, usually by hackers or malicious software that compromises sensitive data or causes damage to computers or network function. Hackers and criminals use a number of tactics and techniques to bypass computer security measures to steal data, such as credit card information, bank information, social security numbers, and other personal information to use in fraudulent criminal acts. In some cases, the intent of a computer security breach is simply to cause damage. Malicious software, viruses, or other programs are inserted into a system with the aim of destroying data or damaging the ability of a computer or network to operate.

Hackers often break into systems in order to steal personal information to use in criminal enterprises, such as wire fraud or identity theft, often with no more effort than guessing a password. Credit card numbers, bank account numbers, social security numbers and other personal data are often the targets of a computer security breach. Attacks can be carried out by humans working alone or by the insertion of malicious software designed to steal data, gain access to data, or cause damage to computer systems.


Keystroke loggers are programs that, once inserted, can record what keys the users press, providing criminals with information about passwords or other data. Other programs can direct users to counterfeit websites where they are tricked into submitting personal information. Virus programs are designed to be destructive, causing damage to operating systems, data files, or otherwise reducing computer function. Other types of malicious software can copy and transfer large amounts of data.

Hackers can be very sophisticated or relatively unskilled amateurs, but even high school students working from a typical home computer can break into highly sensitive computer networks. Documented cases of minors breaking into school networks to steal information and change grades do exist, among hundreds of other similar breaches by individuals and highly organized rings of criminals at banks, financial institutions, government agencies, and private networks. In some cases, a computer security breach may be internal. For instance, an employee of a company may use his or her position and access to make unauthorized use of systems and data.

Computer security is an ongoing concern as hackers become more sophisticated and skilled. A primary problem with computer security systems is that, often, the only obstacle to a hacker or other unauthorized user is a password, which can be cracked, guessed, or otherwise bypassed by skilled attackers. Computer security technology is constantly evolving in an effort to thwart these attacks. Encryption systems for data transfer are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Firewalls and anti-virus programs are designed to stop incursions by many types of malicious software. Many systems have password entry management measures that lock out specific IP addresses or freeze access to an account if the wrong password is entered too many times.


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