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What Is a Sensitive Data Exposure vs. a Data Breach?

Posted on Friday November 18, 2022

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Sensitive data exposures can occur at any company and can release private, secure information costing a company thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

What Is Sensitive Data Exposure?

Sensitive data exposure is when any protected information, like PII, logins, Social Security numbers, financial data, etc, is found and shared with unauthorized users or companies.

As its name implies, sensitive data needs to be protected due to its privacy imperatives from unauthorized disclosure. Safeguards should be enacted to prevent such exposure from occurring since it can impact people’s financial or reputational well-being, in addition to possibly causing them unwarranted emotional harm.

In addition to the aforementioned personally identifiable information, sensitive data includes protected health information (PHI). In general, sensitive data that organizations find valuable falls under these categories:

  • Customer Information: This consists of any stolen information that can be used to create and build a complete customer profile. It encompasses financial information such as credit cards and CVV numbers, and bank account information.
  • Employee Data: Login credentials, social security numbers, salary and tax information, and residential address.
  • Intellectual Property and Trade Secrets: Proprietary company information critical to establishing a competitive advantage in the marketplace.
  • Digital Infrastructure: This provides crucial information to hackers and criminals regarding the blueprint of digital systems, offering insight into a company’s security and the attack paths that can be used for compromise. 

The Difference Between Sensitive Data Exposure and a Data Breach

While they typically both have the same end result —  jeopardizing critical data and sensitive information, sensitive data exposure and a data breach aren’t the same.

A data breach is a concerted and deliberate malicious attempt to undermine an organization’s security system to steal sensitive data and use it to compromise identities for illicit financial gain.

On the other hand, sensitive data exposure is accidental, typically the result of negligence or lack of action on the part of the organization. So, while both are undesirable, it is pertinent to note that sensitive data exposure is more passive in nature, resulting in accidental exposure or leakage of data from an application.

This data exposure can come from various sources due to inadequate protection, such as lax cloud-based applications or misconfigured databases leaking data. But its deficiencies can usually be resolved by safeguarding and securing the data more appropriately.

However, whether it’s a data breach or sensitive data exposure, adverse cybersecurity incidents can blemish an organization’s brand reputation while eroding customer trust and loyalty. The negative publicity and appearance of incompetence also make it difficult to find partners and vendors that want to work with and be associated with the brand.

How Are Applications Vulnerable to Data Exposure And How To Secure Them

Data is a vital resource of competitive advantage. As a result, as company data is used and transformed into information, it usually passes through multiple stages. At any point in time, data is typically in three states, namely: data in use, data in transit, and data at rest (stored).

Sensitive data has to be protected at all times. However, it is hard to keep track of data at all times, much alone protect it. That is why data is encrypted, especially when it’s at rest and in transit.

File and Public Key Encryption

File encryption is the general method used to protect sensitive data. For documents that need to be shared among several parties, public key encryption is commonly used to secure the sensitive data it contains. Public key encryption is ideal because it doesn’t require passwords to be stored or other secrets to be shared.

Apart from file encryption, tokenization and hashing are used to protect and encrypt certain fields in databases, especially those that store password and user account credential information. All these measures bolster file and database security to ensure their data is only accessed by authenticated users.

This is because it uses private keys that seamlessly decrypt the file containing the data using its associated public key while remaining privately hidden.

When an organization unwittingly exposures sensitive data through a security incident, it may lead to loss, unauthorized disclosure, alteration, or accidental destruction of the sensitive data.

But data in use has to be unencrypted for it to be accessed by those who need to view or modify it, meaning the file in which the data is stored has to be decrypted. However, once the file or document is opened, the data stored in it is defenseless, exposed, and vulnerable to attack.

Data in use is usually the most vulnerable because it has been decrypted.

Protecting Sensitive Data From Illegal Exposure

There are ways to avoid making sensitive data less vulnerable. Some things are no-brainers, like avoiding storing it in plain text documents. However, the more common way data is vulnerably exposed is through poor application programming practices, storing it in insecure online systems, uploading incorrect information to databases, and infrastructure misconfigurations.

Since most of these are software flaws, they can be fixed and resolved by following data exposure prevention best practices and better coding practices.

Code Injection Attacks on Databases and Weak JavaScript

To prevent this attack, you must ensure your database can’t be compromised or tricked into exposing sensitive data to unauthorized users.

Hackers and malicious actors deploy code injection attacks to trick a database or unwitting users to provide sensitive data, primarily through SQL Injection and cross-site scripting attack vectors.

Capitalizing on Weak TLS or Encryption 

Without SSL or properly configured HTTPS security on a website, the data stored or transmitted through it stands the risk of exposure. Other hackers could take advantage of weak encryption enforcement to perpetrate attack scenarios such as surreptitiously downgrading the connections from HTTPS to HTTP.  

Another attack path could involve executing request forgery attacks by intercepting requests to steal user session cookies to hijack authenticated sessions.

Man-in-the-Middle (MITM) Attacks

This occurs when an attacker actively eavesdrops on conversations or, more appropriately, communications between parties — amongst users or a user and an application — by making independent connections.

The objective is to intercept the relay messages and possibly alter the communications, unbeknownst to the parties involved.  

Although MITM attacks are widespread, they tend to occur on a small scale.

Furthermore, they are mainly opportunistic and don’t pose much of a threat to an organization. However, they can cause real damage if they specifically target high-value employees with access to sensitive information through reconnaissance. A MITM attack can be successful if the target carelessly uses unsecured wireless networks, for instance, in coffee shops, to transact sensitive business.

Ransomware Attacks

A ransomware attack is a cybersecurity attack that essentially holds an organization’s data ransom until the criminals are paid a ransom. The files containing the sensitive data are encrypted with the threat of deletion or illegal exposure if the ransom money isn’t paid promptly.

Insider Threat Attacks

As the name suggests, insider threats traditionally come from within the organization. They occur when an employee or insider, like a contractor or vendor, poses a security risk by either unknowingly (often due to carelessness) or maliciously exposing the organization’s sensitive data.

What Compliance Standards Are Affected When a Sensitive Data Exposure Occurs?

A wide range of privacy regulations have sprung up over the past several years to hold companies accountable concerning how they handle sensitive and confidential data. The most notable are the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which require organizations to protect data in their possession at all costs or risk facing fines for non-compliance.

These two have probably had the most significant impact on businesses and organizations around the globe regarding data privacy and compliance.

On the healthcare front, there are the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH). HIPAA and HITECH are regulations designed to protect a patient’s health data. Both come with steep penalties and fines for organizations and healthcare providers who fail to comply.

Learn How Digital Guardian Secure Collaboration Can Prevent Sensitive Data Exposure

Digital Guardian Secure Collaboration is equipped to protect your sensitive data, whether at rest, in use, or in transit. This is because it uniquely uses a combination of digital rights management (DRM) and information rights management (IRM) technologies to protect sensitive data in all phases of the data lifecycle.

To learn more about protecting sensitive data, especially as it concerns healthcare, read our ebook.

Tags:  Secure Collaboration

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