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Understanding Sensitive Data Exposure

Understanding Sensitive Data Exposure

In 2023, there were 2,365 cyber attacks and other security-related incidents, totaling 343,338,964 victims—a mind-boggling increase of 72 percent in the number of security incidents since 2021, the previous annual record.

Coming back from one of these cyber issues does not come at a small cost. The average cybersecurity incident costs $4.45 million. These figures can climb even higher depending on the type of data your organization handles—especially if that data is regulated or particularly sensitive.

Why is Sensitive Data Exposure Problematic?

Sensitive data exposure is significantly detrimental because it can lead to severe consequences for both individuals and organizations.

When sensitive information such as personal identification details, financial data, or confidential business information is exposed, it becomes vulnerable to unauthorized access and misuse. This can result in identity theft, financial fraud, and significant breaches of privacy, causing emotional and financial distress to affected individuals.

For organizations, data exposure can lead to legal liabilities, regulatory penalties, and a loss of trust from customers and stakeholders. 

Additionally, sensitive data exposure can damage an organization’s reputation, potentially leading to a loss of business and competitive advantage. The implications of such exposure underscore the critical importance of robust data protection measures and stringent security protocols to safeguard sensitive information.

What Qualifies as Sensitive Data?

What exactly qualifies as sensitive data? And how do you safeguard this information from prying eyes and the actions of cyber criminals? Here’s a look at the three types of sensitive data, and the top strategies for protecting this information.

Category 1: Personal Information Is Sensitive Data

What Qualifies as Sensitive DataOne of the most significant types of sensitive data is also the most appealing to bad actors and cyber criminals: Personally identifiable information, or PII. But what qualifies as PII? The US Department of Labor explains that personally identifiable information can be defined as:

  1. Any information that directly identifies an individual, like their name, address, social security number, telephone number, or email address.

  2. Any information an organization or agency uses to identify particular individuals in tandem with other identifying data, including gender, race, birth date, geographic location, or personal descriptors.

  3. Any information used to contact an individual, either online or in person.

Why is this information so sensitive? PII can be traced back to individuals, which means that if it is shared as part of a security incident, for example, it can result in some kind of harm. 

Examples of sensitive PII include:

  • A person’s name, residence, and mailing address
  • Social security numbers or alien registration numbers
  • Biometric data like fingerprints or iris scans
  • Driver’s license and passport numbers
  • IP addresses and geolocation details
  • Any information disclosed in the bounds of attorney-client privilege
  • Usernames, emails, passwords, and other authentication credentials

Healthcare information can also qualify as sensitive PII, which must be kept safe as part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), including:

  • Patient records
  • Medical documents from tests and scans
  • Treatments or diagnosed medical conditions
  • Medical history and future prognosis
  • Health records and genetic details
  • Health insurance plan information, including payments and transactions, and details from insurance providers, healthcare providers, and clearing houses

Additionally, sensitive PII also includes financial information like banking information, account numbers, and routing numbers. This also encapsulates credit card numbers, credit scores, and financial histories. 

Category 2: Confidential Business Information as Sensitive Data

Confidential Business Information as Sensitive DataConfidential business information must also be protected from sensitive data exposure. This involves any kind of data that could be damaging to your organization if it was exposed or shared—particularly with your competitor or the general public. 

Think of your sensitive business information as the “secret sauce” for your business or practice. In other words, confidential business information is anything that gives you a competitive edge, anything that sets you apart, or any other proprietary information that, when compromised, could result in a financial loss or some other disadvantage. It could also include details on upcoming strategies and initiatives. This type of sensitive data includes:

  • Trade secrets
  • Upcoming and future acquisition plans
  • Financial data
  • Information regarding suppliers, customers, clients, or patients,
  • Intellectual property details

We are collectively creating more data than ever before. It’s estimated that 90 percent of all data was generated just in the past two years. What’s more, the total amount of data generated annually has increased 60 times between 2010 and 2023. And while we created 120 zettabytes of data in 2023, this figure is expected to reach 181 zettabytes of annual data created in 2025, an increase of 150 percent in just two years.

With the rapidly increasing creation of new data that businesses generate, these organizations must protect information from sensitive data exposure.

Category 3: Sensitive and Classified Data 

Understanding Sensitive Data Exposure - Sensitive and Classified DataThe last type of sensitive data is classified data, which refers to any government-created, government-regulated, or government-supplied data that could potentially pose a risk to national security. Data might also be considered classified (and therefore, sensitive) if it involves protected information about particular organizations or individuals. 

When any kind of information is classified, there are restrictions regarding who has access and who can use this data, all based on how sensitive it is. Data classifications, from least restricted to most restricted include:

  • Restricted information can negatively impact national security if compromised
  • Confidential information could damage national security if compromised
  • Secret information could cause serious damage to national security if compromised
  • Top Secret information could cause grave damage to national security if compromised

These four classifications offer guidance on the types of security and access controls each file should have to keep the data fully protected.

By the last count, over 2.8 million people have some kind of security clearance—and 1.6 million have access to Confidential and/or Secret information. Perhaps most shocking of all, 1.2 million people have cleared access to Top Secret information. This doesn’t even include the additional people like civilian employees, military personnel, and contractors, who have security clearance but cannot access classified information. 

That means there are literally millions who can access some kind of classified information. With access granted to so many individuals, each person with restricted, confidential, secret, or Top Secret clearance must do everything they can to protect this data. 

Preventing Sensitive Data Exposure

Preventing Sensitive Data Exposure

There is a myriad of ways organizations can mitigate a cybersecurity incident like sensitive data exposure. Some of the most important ways to keep sensitive data from falling into the wrong hands include:

  • Data classification: Creating guidelines for how to classify and store sensitive data
  • Encryption: Encoding sensitive information in transit and at rest so that unauthorized users cannot read this data, even if they gain access
  • Employee security awareness training: Educating and readying your teams on best practices for cybersecurity, including identifying and handling phishing attacks, following additional protocols for securing sensitive data, and reporting suspicious digital activity
  • Access control and authentication: Providing access control and authentication mechanisms to grant and deny varying levels of access to sensitive data based on user roles and permissions
  • Routine updates: Keeping software operating systems and security updated to patch and mitigate vulnerabilities and tackle security issues to prevent cyber criminals from entering your network
  • Network security: Establishing tools like firewalls, intrusion detection solutions, and encryption to protect your sensitive data in transit
  • Auditing and monitoring: Using continuous monitoring and routine audits to assess your security strategies and respond to potential data exposures quickly

Data protection for sensitive information isn’t just about complying with regulations and preventing legal consequences. It’s also about protecting consumer trust. What other data protection services are most important to strengthen an organization’s security posture? They include:

Let Us Shield Your Sensitive Data

At Christo IT, we are passionate about protecting the operations—and the sensitive data—of professionals throughout the greater Philadelphia area and beyond. 

With years of experience managing regulated, protected, and confidential data in the financial, legal, and medical fields, we understand the nuance and vigilance needed to keep this information out of the hands of enterprising bad actors. 

From cyber checkups and vulnerability scans to endpoint detection, ongoing security monitoring, and all-encompassing data protection services, we’ll tailor our services to you and work around the clock to protect your operations from sensitive data exposure. Ready to learn more? Contact us today!

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