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The Risks and Best Practices of Data Rooms

Secure document sharing and storage have become critical for businesses and individuals alike. Online document-sharing platforms, including secure data rooms, offer a convenient solution to manage sensitive documents. However, it is important to recognize that these platforms also possess vulnerabilities that can weaken document protection. By understanding these limitations, users can make informed decisions and take appropriate measures to enhance document protection in their online interactions.

The risks of data rooms and online document platforms

Most data rooms today are what some in the industry refers to as virtual data rooms. They’re typically hosted on the server infrastructure of a cloud provider. Access isprotected by a simple username and password and documents are viewed in the browser, which enforces document controls. This approach may sound secure, but in practice several vulnerabilities are introduced.

Data rooms and data breaches

Data breaches are a major concern for any online platform, and data rooms are not excluded. The examples of high-profile data breaches in the online document sharing industry are numerous:

  • In 2012, Dropbox experienced a security breach that affected approximately 68 million user accounts. Attackers compromised a Dropbox employee’saccount, stealing user email addresses and hashed passwords. While the passwords were encrypted, weak hashing algorithms made it easier for hackers to crack them and gain access to users’ accounts.
  • OneLogin suffered a security breach in 2017. The breach allowed unauthorized access to sensitive customer data, including user login credentials and Secure Notes, which could contain passwords and other confidential information.
  • Citrix ShareFile faced a security incident in 2019. Hackers gained access to the company’s internal network, potentially compromising customer data stored in ShareFile accounts.

Despite these companies and others implementing robust security measures, online platforms will always be vulnerable to sophisticated cyberattacks. Hackers are constantly evolving their tactics, seeking to exploit vulnerabilities in the platform’s infrastructure or gain unauthorized access to user accounts. By exploiting weak passwords, using phishing techniques and social engineering, or employing malware, attackers can compromise the servers of online document platforms and the sensitive data companies store on them. Once a breach occurs, sensitive information can be exposed, leading to reputational damage, financial loss, and potential legal repercussions.

Always online means always vulnerable

The reliance on internet connectivity also poses risks in terms of document protection. While online platforms offer the convenience of accessing documents from anywhere and at any time, they are inherently dependent on stable and secure internet connections. If the internet connection is insecure or compromised, it could expose the sensitive documents to interception or unauthorized surveillance. For example, public Wi-Fi networks pose security risks. Attackers could use man-in-the-middle attacks to direct users to false login portals, where they will steal their passwords. They can also perform packet sniffing to extract unencrypted data or create rogue Wi-Fi networks to deceive users and gain unauthorized access.

Data rooms are a black box

When using secure data room platforms, users areentrusting their sensitive documents to external service providers. While reputable platforms strive to implement strong security measures, users have no visibility or control over the specific security protocols employed by these third parties. This lack of transparency can undermine trust and increase the risk of data breaches. Users may assume that a platform is safe unless stated otherwise, and therefore upload documents that they otherwise wouldn’t.

Additionally, admins have the additional burden and responsibility of thoroughly assessing the security practices of the platforms they use to ensure that they align with their own data protection requirements. This can be a particular headache when an organization has specific compliance constraints (i.e. healthcare, legal, and governmental sectors).

Data room controls are rarely effective

There is no standardization when it comes to data room document controls, but typically they use JavaScript to prevent users from printing, copy-pasting, etc. JavaScript executes mostly on the client side, in the user’s browser, which allows it to be modified by using developer mode. Both printing and copy-pasting controls can usually be bypassed without much effort. Often, simple tricks such as highlighting text will cause it to become copyable when viewing underlying html code. Screenshots, meanwhile, are almost never prevented in the browser. It simply does not have the level of control required to do so consistently.

To err is human

Human error remains a significant factor in document protection. Despite the security measures implemented by data rooms, users can still make mistakes that compromise document security. For instance, users may inadvertently share documents with the wrong recipients, accidentally delete critical files, or fall victim to social engineering and phishing attacks.

In 2017, for example, Google Docs faced a phishing attack that compromised numerous user accounts. Hackers sent emails containing a malicious link disguised as a legitimate Google Docs invitation, tricking users into granting access to their accounts. This breach allowed attackers to access users’ documents, emails, and contacts, potentially exposing sensitive information.

Box users have fallen afoul of a different human vulnerability. Files were exposed due to improper configuration settings, with some businesses failing to disable the ability to share documents via link. These links were later shared by internal users on other platforms, causing them to be indexed by search engines. This allowed unauthorized users to access and view sensitive documents that were intended to be private and secure.

How to mitigate the risks of data rooms


Though no sharing is zero risk, online document services are inherently vulnerable to more threats. Therefore, user education and awareness play a crucial role in mitigating the risks associated with human error. Users should be trained on best practices for document sharing, including the importance of doublechecking recipient information, using secure passwords, and being vigilant against phishing attempts.

Organizations must also educate their employees on safe document-handling practices, such as sharing files through encrypted channels, avoiding public Wi-Fi networks for document transfers, and regularly reviewing access permissions for shared documents. Implementing document classification and access control mechanisms can further enhance document protection, ensuring that sensitive information is only accessible to authorized individuals.

Finally, it is key that users and admins stay informed about the security features and updates of the data room they choose to utilize. Platforms that regularly release security patches and updates demonstrate a commitment to addressing vulnerabilities and enhancing document protection. Users should also review the platform’s terms of service and privacy policy to understand how their data is stored, accessed, and shared by the service provider. Clear communication and transparency between the platform provider and the user are vital for establishing trust and ensuring the protection of sensitive information.

Encryption and platform security

To further address the weaknesses in document protection on online platforms, users and adminsshould take several additional steps to enhance security. Firstly, implementing strong and unique passwords is essential. Passwords should be complex, avoiding common patterns and incorporating a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. However, this adds the additional burden of storing or remembering passwords and recovery keys if passwords are forgotten. It’s also worth noting that passwords and recovery keys stored digitally and even physically can be found and exploited. As a result, and due to the inherent weaknesses of passwords, it’s advisable to enable two-factor authentication. This adds an extra layer of security by requiring an additional verification step, such as a fingerprint scan or a unique code sent to a mobile device. 

Encryption is a fundamental aspect of secure online document sharing, but its implementation can vary significantly among providers. Variations in encryption algorithms, key management practices, TLS and SSL certificate usage, end-to-end encryption adoption, and compliance with security standards contribute to these differences. Users and organizations must be mindful of these variations when selecting an online document-sharing provider to ensure their data remains secure and confidential. End-to-end encryption should be considered essential.

Closing words

Data rooms and online document-sharing platforms offer convenience and efficiency but in exchange for significant weaknesses and shortcomings that can compromise document protection. Data breaches, internet connectivity issues, reliance on third-party security practices, and human error are among the primary concerns.

To mitigate these vulnerabilities, users must take control of their privacy and security and not leave all the responsibility and control in the hands of their providers. They should use strong passwords, enable two-factor authentication, utilize encryption, regularly back up their documents, and stay informed about platform security features and updates. Promoting a security-conscious culture and implementing document classification and access controls within organizations can also enhance document protection.

By understanding these weaknesses and taking appropriate measures, users can protect themselves with increased confidence in the security of their shared documents. However, it is important to understand that they are just mitigations. Even when following best practice there is still a significant risk that documents will leak from a data room via screenshots, intentional account sharing, phishing, etc. Ensuring the secure document sharing requires a PDF DRM or similar solution. Only a good DRM solution can prevent screenshots, printing, and unauthorized sharing.


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