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Sensitive data exposure: causes, detection and mitigation

by | Sep 17, 2020

The modern world is a tech-savvy and digitally enabled in the office and outside of it. So much can be done remotely to benefit the growth of an organization. However, in the same vein, criminals could do harm to people and organizations from the comfort of their homes. How? By simply getting a hold of sensitive data. Put simply, in a lot of cases, a person’s or organisations sensitive data is their life. Once someone has a hold of your sensitive data, they also have a hold of your business and reputation, not to mention the regulatory fines that can result from such a breach.

How do you prevent such a fate? You must know everything about your sensitive data, where it’s stored and possible exposure points. You also need to know what causes sensitive data exposure, and how to prevent or correct it. Read on for more information.

Understanding Sensitive Data Risk

Access to sensitive data should only be limited to authorized people. As an organization, you must protect all types of sensitive information that is coming into your organization. This can include your customer’s personal data such as their home address, phone number, email address, health information (this is pertinent to health organization), party affiliation, etc., as well as your worker’s personal data.

Safeguarding this information is very important, as it not only creates valuable trust between you and your customers resulting in a competitive edge over some of your competition but also reduces the risk your organization carries.

Irrespective of the type of data or level of its sensitivity, a loss or unauthorized access to this data can:

  • have adverse effects on your business;
  • kill the trust your clients have in your company;
  • lead to a breach in customers and workers privacy;
  • bring about identity theft;
  • in severe cases, affect the security system of a country, expose the whole country to a foreign power and also affect the international relations of nations.

This has brought about tougher data management, third-party risk management, cybersecurity, and vendor risk management in most organizations or sectors across the world.

Sensitive data examples

There are different examples of sensitive data or information, and they include:

Personal information: Personally identifiable information or PII is information that that can uniquely identify people as individuals, separate from all others. Example include information such as first and last name, contact information, address, biometric information, health information, ethnicity, etc. Hence, careless disclosure of this type of data can lead to identity theft and can expose one’s privacy to the wrong people. What constitutes PII or a breach varies by regulation (GDPR, CCPA, Privacy Acts, etc.) and can carry heavy penalties if PII is exposed or stolen.

Sensitive business information: Sensitive business data comprises business information that is vital to the development of the business organization. This information includes the intellectual property (IP), business plans and projections, company tax documents, profit and loss accounts, employee information, client’s personal information, etc. Disclosure of any of this business information can have severe consequences on the organization such as a breach of trust, exposure to a rival company, regulatory repercussions, amongst others.

Payment card information: Credit card or debit cards are issued by financial institutions to enable their customers to withdraw money from any ATM stand and make payments for goods and services either online or offline. Many business transactions don’t accept cash payment, instead, you will have to pay directly using a credit card. These cards contain visible numbers (account number, expiry, security code) and other information. It is of utmost importance that these card details don’t get into the wrong hands, otherwise unauthorized purchases can be made on your card or your bank account could be wiped clean. Your card details can also be used to purchase illegal things either online or offline and this could make you a prime suspect for the police or other law enforcement agencies.

Payment card information is deemed sensitive data because it contains:

  • Primary Account Number (PAN)
  • Cardholder name
  • Service code
  • PIN code
  • CVC2, CVV2, CID
  • Expiration date,
  • Residential address
  • Phone number and other contact details
  • Biometric information such as fingerprints, electronic signature, etc.

Sensitive data exposure explained

Data breach or exposure is usually a common occurrence in any industry or organization that collects, stores and processes customer information.

A data breach is a very common occurrence because of how dominant electronic information and devices such as smartphones, laptops, etc. are/

The use of smartphones has brought about an increase in the use of internet connection. And as a result of this, many industries such as banking, healthcare, E-commerce, etc. have made it possible for anyone to connect to their systems online through the creation of user-friendly applications. This has poked new holes into most organisations that are now being exploited.

If an attacker spots and exlpoits vulnerabilities in the systems and applications being used, it puts all of thier clients sensitive data at risk. This is why companies spend heavily on their data protection and security needs.

The largest sensitive data exposure breach

The Yahoo! Data breach remains the largest data breach in history with over 3.6 billion users affected. It started in 2013 but  it wasn’t detected until 3 years later in 2016. During that period, hackers were able to gather billions of users’ credentials such as their email addresses, email passwords, security questions, and answers, etc. As a result of the breach, Yahoo was forced to discount $350 million off their sales price to Verizon. Furthermore, Verizon subsequently changed Yahoo’s name to Altaba Inc. because of the reputaional damage to the brand.

Causes of sensitive data exposure

Sensitive data exposure is not only caused by vulnerabilities in an application or a database. In this section, we will briefly discuss the most common causes which result in data breaches.

Weak or stolen credentials: This is perhaps the commonest way by which sensitive data get exposed. Most people are too predictable when it comes to choosing their password or reusing psswords. For example, a person may use 1,2,3,4,5,6 or A-F as their password. This is too weak and very predictable – making it easy to crack. For a strong password users should mix numbers with letters and symbols or make use of a password creator/manager. Users should also cultivate the habit of changing login passwords frequently, which some password managers can do automatically.

Vulnerabilities: If there are unknown vulnerabilities in software or an application, hackers can exploit these vulnerabilities to cause havoc. Ensure you have a proper vulnerability management process in place. This can include everything from static code analysis, to library checking and most important server and aplication patching.

Malware: This is another common cause of sensitive data exposure. Hackers make use of different sophisticated software to attack a computer system called malware. Tthere are different types of malware programs including keylogger, ransomware, or even man-in-the-middle attacks.

Insider threats: This basically refers to negligence or a mistakes on the part of the employees. Common mistakes include the disclosure of a company network password to a third-party, clicking on malicious links, sending a company file/document to the wrong person, etc. all fall under this category. This act of negligence can also result in a severe data breach. It also can include malicious uers who intentionally steal data for personal gain.

How to detect and mitigate sensitive data exposure

The sooner a data breach is detected, the better. This section will show you how to quickly detect and mitigate a potential data breach.

  • Employ the right people or conusltants to handle your cybersecurity.
  • Stay up to date with the latest security issues and patches. New forms of attacks are being used by bad actors all the time, so it is important to stay informed about the latest threat vectors.
  • Install antivirus to combat computer viruses and other malware related attacks.
  • Use global threat intelligence as surveys have shown that companies that use this procedure have experienced little or no case of a data breach.
  • Encrypt all your sensitive data.
  • Destroy/discard data that is expired and you no longer need to keep. 
  • Emply proactive data-centric security to prevent isnider threats and lateral movement by hackers. 


Preventing sensitive data exposure won’t only save your from hefty fines, it will also protect your company’s reputation and avoid penalties under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

If you’ve read this far, you’ve solved half the problem. The second half is to put all you have read into practice and give those cybercriminals a run for their money.

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