RegulatoryWhat is a breach of confidentiality?

What is a breach of confidentiality?

Confidentiality is a fundamental principle that’s essential for business and personal aspects of life and defines how you protect sensitive information, ensuring that it remains private and is only accessible to authorized individuals. It’s incredibly easy to share and distribute information online so taking sensible steps to protect your company’s confidential information is important. I’ve explained what to look out for, how to protect your sensitive information and what to do if there’s a breach.

What’s the definition of a breach of confidentiality?

A breach of confidentiality happens when there is an unauthorized disclosure or access to confidential information. Maybe an employee shared a file either intentionally or unintentionally; or a file was not correctly secured, or you might have had an intruder attack into your system.

Types of information you should protect

Think about the information that helps your company be successful – it could be as simple as employee records, customer details, pricing, through to inventions or patents. And if you run a business that has customer or patient records then this information is confidential.

Consequences of a breach of confidentiality

The consequences of a breach of confidentiality can be far-reaching and damaging, both for individuals and organizations. At an individual level, a breach can result in the violation of privacy rights, leading to emotional distress, reputational harm, and even identity theft. In a professional context, the loss of confidential information can lead to financial losses, loss of competitive advantage, and erosion of trust from clients or customers. Legal repercussions, such as lawsuits, fines, or regulatory investigations, can further compound the negative impact of a breach.

Legal implications

The legal implications of a breach of confidentiality vary depending on the jurisdiction and the nature of the breach. In the UK there are different laws and regulations that help protect individuals’ privacy rights and require organizations to implement measures to safeguard confidential information. Violations can result in civil legal case, criminal charges, or regulatory penalties. For example, GDPR covers a range of data protection and the ICO (Information Commissioners Office) in the UK regulates and enforces data breaches.

Examples of breaches

A simple example might be an employee shares a commercial customer contract with a competitor, or an employee shares their employment contract with another employee, or perhaps details of your business’ future plans are shared, or personal customer data files are accidentally published.

All of these examples happen on a regular basis to businesses that have not planned ahead to help protect against these examples and, if the worst happens, how to manage a breach.

Maintain confidentiality

Maintaining confidentiality is crucial across various industries to protect sensitive information and uphold trust; it’s hard to work closely with another business if you can’t share sensitive information, so what do you do?

Business confidentiality

For business relationships and ways of working with other companies, its best-practice for all parties to sign a Non Disclosure Agreement (NDA). This sets out very clearly what can and cannot be done with any information that’s shared. Typically, this prevents others using your company’s information for their advantage.

Personal confidentiality

For employees and individuals (rather than businesses), confidentiality agreements as part of an employment contract or contractor contract are important. This helps define what is expected and prohibited (either for business reasons or regulations) to clearly explain to employees what they can and cannot do with the company’s sensitive information.

Customer confidentiality

Your company’s customers often have specific arrangements in place – perhaps special pricing or terms or a specific setup – and all of this information should also be classed as confidential and protected with a confidentiality agreement as part of the customer contract or terms and conditions.

How to prevent a breach of confidentiality

Preventing a breach of confidentiality requires a proactive approach and the implementation of robust security measures. Firstly, organizations must establish clear policies and procedures regarding the handling and protection of confidential information. This includes educating employees on the importance of confidentiality, providing training on data security best practices, and enforcing strict access controls.

Regular security assessments and vulnerability testing should be conducted to identify and address potential weaknesses. Additionally, the use of encryption, firewalls, and intrusion detection systems can enhance the security of digital information. Ongoing monitoring and auditing of systems and processes are essential to ensure compliance and identify any potential breaches before they occur.

How to manage and handle a breach

In the unfortunate event of a breach of confidentiality, swift and effective action is crucial to mitigate the damage and restore trust. The first step is to contain the breach by identifying the source and extent of the unauthorized access or disclosure. This may involve working with IT professionals to secure systems, change passwords, and revoke access privileges.

Communication is vital during this process, both internally and externally. Affected individuals and stakeholders should be promptly notified, providing transparent information about the breach and the steps being taken to address it. Collaboration with legal professionals is often necessary to navigate any legal implications and ensure compliance with applicable regulations. Finally, organizations should conduct a thorough post-incident review to identify lessons learned and implement additional safeguards to prevent future breaches.


Confidentiality is a cornerstone of trust and privacy in both personal and professional contexts. Understanding the concept of confidentiality and the potential consequences of a breach is crucial for individuals and organizations alike. Breaches of confidentiality can have severe repercussions, including emotional distress, financial losses, legal consequences, and damage to reputations. By maintaining confidentiality and implementing robust security measures, individuals and organizations can protect sensitive information, preserve trust, and uphold the rights of individuals. It is through these collective efforts that we can ensure the continued integrity and security of confidential information in an increasingly interconnected world.

Written by

Mark Hodgson
Mark Hodgson
Mark Hodgson is one of our expert writers. Mark is our lead researcher and editor who writes our main guides and expert topic coverage. He’s passionate about helping entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses with practical advice delivered clearly. Mark’s worked for a number of business magazines and titles and has started two small businesses himself, so has first-hand experience in setting up, managing and growing a small business and shares his expertise with our readers.

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