In the modern global data ecosystem, businesses collect and hold a lot of sensitive consumer data. Company databases store sensitive information such as credit card numbers, passwords, house addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers, and email addresses. Although this data is an asset for most companies, it becomes a risk in case of a data breach.
Sensitive data needs to be protected against all unauthorized access to prevent exposure to potential hackers and fraudulent activities. When unauthorized individuals access consumer data, it can be quite costly. Statistics show that the cost of a data breach in 2022 stood at $4.24 million per breach. It also compromises privacy and can lead to stolen identities and fraud. Therefore, if this happens to your business, the consequences could be severe enough to affect your operations.
In this article we’ll explain how does sensitive data exposure happen and how to avoid it?
What is sensitive data exposure?
Sensitive data exposure occurs when unauthorized people access personal information or company data. It usually happens when a company accidentally exposes sensitive information due to inefficient security measures, poor encryption, misconfigurations, and inappropriate data systems.
Data exposure leads to unlawful destruction, alteration, and loss of sensitive data. Here are some of the attacks that expose sensitive data.
- SQL injection attacks — they occur when an attacker introduces malicious queries into your system to extract sensitive user information with a simple command.
- Insider attacks — they happen when a current or former employee with authorized access breaks into your system to steal data.
- Phishing — designed to mislead users to get them to offer sensitive information via text messages or emails.
How does data exposure happen?
Most organizations have invested heavily in complex IT systems to boost their data security. Despite that, sensitive data is still vulnerable to exposure either through employee errors or poor data control systems. To effectively protect your data, you need to know the different methods of data exposure.
Data in transit
Data is always traversing through networks, servers, or people. For instance, when you send an email, the information moves from on-premise to the cloud. As data is being exchanged between application programming interfaces (APIs) and servers, it’s at risk of interception.
Cybercriminals exploit any security flaws between two applications or servers to get the data. Sensitive data is exposed during transit due to a lack of encryption, poor data control policies, or when employees use insecure connections.
Data at rest
As of 2022, 60% of all corporate data was stored in the cloud. While this helps companies with data management, they face dangerous cloud data risks. In an average company, 157,000 sensitive records are at risk of being exposed through various channels, representing $28 million in data-breach risk.
The security of stored data depends on the protocols in place to protect it. The information is prone to SQL injections and other attacks when there’s no proper encryption on company files and databases. Additionally, sensitive data at rest can be exposed if there are misconfiguration errors, such as having private information available on the internet for anyone to access.
How to avoid sensitive data exposure
Exposure of sensitive data can be prevented by taking the right steps to mitigate the risk and quickly detect potential breaches. Here are some of the steps you should take.
Classify your data
To avoid sensitive data exposure in your business, you first need to know where all your sensitive data is. For instance, you should know which files and databases contain customer information and which ones hold important passwords. This way, you can devise better ways to secure the data.
In order to avoid sensitive data exposure, create an automated classification system that gives a clear picture of the location, owners, type of security, and governance measures your business has.
Improve your access control
Some data attacks happen due to poor sensitive data visibility. For example, you’ll find that some businesses don’t know which files or databases contain sensitive information, and where the data — like passwords, and customer information like Social Security numbers — is stored. When your business has poor visibility and classification, you can’t track and secure all the data.
One of the ways to boost your data security is by improving and automating your data access service. This determines who can access files and the networks in your business and for how long. Develop an automated access management policy that determines the privilege of every user that does not rely on manual granting and accessing of sensitive data. With proper access controls, only the intended individuals can view and alter sensitive data.
Attackers use different vulnerabilities to gain access to sensitive data. For instance, if your system is not properly encrypted, it becomes easier to penetrate and get this information. However, with regular penetration testing, you can detect weaknesses and strengthen security measures.
Penetration testing simulates how real-world attackers use your vulnerabilities to gain access to your data. Conducting these tests regularly provides insights into your defenses. You can hire a data expert to launch these penetration tests if you process sensitive information on a larger scale. Once you have the results, you can add extra layers of security to protect your business from potential data breaches.
Businesses must keep sensitive data unexposed. While sensitive data is at risk when in transit or at rest, you can protect your business by ensuring that you conduct regular testing, classify the data, and improve your access control measures. Additionally, you can safeguard data by using tokenization which protects social security numbers, credit cards and other well-defined databases.
It’s important to pay attention to your data, especially due to the emergence of for-profit attackers who are looking to re-sell sensitive information or hold businesses for ransom.
Ben is an experienced tech leader and book author with a background in endpoint security, analytics, and application & data security. Ben filled roles such as the CTO of Cynet, and Director of Threat Research at Imperva. Ben is the Chief Scientist for Satori, the DataSecOps platform, as well as VP of Marketing.