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What Is Sensitive Information? How to Classify & Protect It

by Chris Brook on Monday October 30, 2023

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Curious how sensitive information differs from personal information? We break down examples, what can happen when that data is exposed, and best practices for protecting sensitive data in this blog.

Sensitive information needs protection from routine, casual, perfunctory access. This stems from the risks that they expose individuals and organizations through their loss, misuse, unauthorized access, or leakage. 

The ever-increasing amount of data organizations generate, along with social media, digital devices, and their endpoints, has raised the risk and profile of sensitive information. Consequently, the importance of understanding sensitive information has never required more urgency. 

This article explores the various types of sensitive information, what happens when it’s breached, and the best practices to protect it. 

What Is Sensitive Information?

Sensitive information generally encompasses non-public, personally identifiable information (PII) and health care protected information, including confidential information from businesses, enterprises, and government agencies. Sensitive information can be exploited for financial gain or sabotage through identity theft, corporate espionage, and national security compromise.  

As a result, sensitive information must be protected from loss, theft, corruption, damage, and unauthorized access by keeping it confidential.

What Are Some Types of Sensitive Information?

Sensitive information typically falls into three categories: sensitive PII, business information, and classified information.

Highlighting The Difference Between Sensitive Information and Personal Information

PII is the least regulated type of data, primarily because it is the most commonly available information.  

Most aspects of PII are construed as public information (non-sensitive information such as date of birth, race, gender, and zip code). However, the danger is that when PII is used in conjunction with other variables, it can be used to unmask an individual, resulting in personal harm or embarrassment.

Sensitive PII

Sensitive PII includes unique identifiers, medical information, and financial information that can cause substantial harm to an individual if compromised or misused. 

Sensitive PII includes unique identifiers like: 

  • Full name
  • Residential and mailing address
  • Biometric data such as fingerprints and pupils for iris scan
  • Social security numbers
  • Alien registration numbers
  • Passport numbers
  • Driver’s license
  • IP address, and precise geolocation information 

Sensitive PII also includes protected healthcare information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA):

  • Patient records from hospital or chiropractor visits.
  • Medical documents resulting from lab tests and scans like X-rays and MRIs.
  • Treatment received and medical conditions.
  • Health plans, payments, and transactions, including those from insurance, health care providers, and clearing houses. 
  • An individual’s past and present medical history or future health prognosis.
  • Health and genetic information.  

Sensitive PII traces financial information like the following:

  • Banking information like account and routing numbers
  • Credit card numbers
  • Credit scores and histories

Business Information

This includes a range of intellectual property (IP), company secrets, and proprietary information leveraged for marketplace competitive advantage:

  • Business secrets and company processes
  • Trade secrets
  • Proprietary information that is protected under copyright laws, like patents and trademarks
  • Acquisition plans and targets
  • Supplier and customer information such as licensing agreements, supply-chain information

Confidential Government Information

  • This encompasses classified documents of different security levels (restricted, confidential, secret, and top secret) and other national security-related secrets like the presidential daily briefing (PDB) documents. 

What Happens When Sensitive Information Is Breached?

Data is the currency of the digital age, and sensitive information has the highest transaction value in this economy. Therefore, many ramifications occur when sensitive information is breached.  

As a result, when sensitive information is breached, it triggers a host of undesirable consequences for both the company involved in the data breach and the individuals impacted.

Financial Loss

As the world has observed over the past couple of years, no organization is immune from a data breach or ransomware incidents, even top US governmental agencies and cybersecurity organizations with access to top-notch security.  

According to IBM, the average cost of a data breach is $4.45 million. In addition to the huge cost accrued to the breached organization, there’s also enormous cost to the individuals impacted. For starters, the people affected are at risk of identity theft as criminals can perpetrate various kinds of criminal activity under their name. 

Reputation Damage

While the financial cost of sensitive information exposure is enormous, in many ways, the reputational damage can be more devastating for organizations. The loss of trust often compels other businesses and customers to desist from doing business with a company that has suffered a data breach.  

Moreover, the time and emotional toll it takes on the individuals involved to resolve the aftermath of sensitive data exposure is considerable. Besides the financial hit, authorized access to confidential information can lead to humiliation, embarrassment, and blackmail.

Erosion of Customer Trust

Identity threat erodes in institutions as people no longer feel confident in the impacted organization's ability to safeguard their confidential information. 

The Best Practices for Protecting Sensitive Information

Safeguarding and protecting sensitive information generally involves applying the precepts of information lifecycle management. These best practices imply overseeing sensitive data from its inception to final disposition. 

Data Discovery and Data Classification

This is the fundamental step for protecting sensitive information. Data discovery and data classification are integral to locating, identifying, and prioritizing the appropriate level of security to apply to each data category.

Gaining Visibility Through Monitoring

You can’t adequately protect what you can’t see, observe, and monitor. Monitoring networks and endpoints to detect anomalous activity throughout the system environment proactively protects sensitive data. It also involves screening for supply chain vulnerabilities and insider threat possibilities.

Hardening the Security Around Sensitive Data

Traditional security perimeters used to protect digital assets behind firewalls and corporate networks have proven inadequate in the era of a dispersed workforce participating remotely. Therefore, more emphasis has to be placed on encryption, multi-factor authentication, identity access management, perimeter-less security, and zero-trust practices. 

Data-centric Security 

This approach has the capacity to minimize the fallout and cost of sensitive data exposures and data breaches while minimizing business interruption. The advantage of data-centric security is that it follows sensitive information wherever it travels.

Incident Response 

In the event of a data breach, organizations need fast and nimble responses to curtail the damage and fallout from the criminals’ nefarious activity. 

Regulatory compliance

Organizations must demonstrate compliance with laws by enforcing regulatory compliance standards to safeguard digital rights such as GDPR, HIPAA, etc. 

Creating and maintaining cybersecurity governance 

Organizations should cultivate an institutional blueprint for protecting sensitive information. Cybersecurity governance provides a measure of predictability through protocols and enforceable policies. 

This should involve approaches like maintaining regular audit practices that gauge the strength of sensitive information protection. Such measures include conducting regular vulnerability assessments and penetration tests.

Plug data leaks by proper configuration

In this era of expansive remote work, data leaks easily occur through unsecured endpoints. One of the most prevalent reasons for this misconfiguration of systems and devices. Data leaks are also plugged through the enforcement of security hygiene by disabling ports and devices that are no longer in use to avoid shadow IT. 

Explore How Fortra's Digital Guardian Can Help with Your Sensitive Information

Fortra's Digital Guardian has the capacity to protect sensitive information across a range of platforms and industries. Partner with us to secure data and file types across financial, legal, and manufacturing industries. 

In addition, our technology is equipped to safeguard your sensitive IT security data, such as passwords and encryption keys. Looking to learn more? Schedule a demo with us today.

Tags:  Data Protection Data-Centric Security

Chris Brook

Chris Brook

Chris Brook is the editor of Digital Guardian’s Data Insider blog. He is a cybersecurity writer with nearly 15 years of experience reporting and writing about information security, attending infosec conferences like Black Hat and RSA, and interviewing hackers and security researchers. Prior to joining Digital Guardian–acquired by Fortra in 2021–he helped launch Threatpost, an independent news site that was a leading source of information about IT and business security for hundreds of thousands of professionals worldwide.

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