Glossary Glossary

Sensitive Data Exposure

Sensitive data exposure occurs when sensitive information, such as Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, bank account details, medical records, and intellectual property, gets disclosed.

The most common causes of sensitive data exposure include security misconfigurations, such as weak or missing encryption and inadequate cloud server setup. Such misconfigurations can create vulnerabilities that contribute to attack surface expansion. Tackling vulnerabilities through effective attack surface management (ASM) can minimize the risk of data exposure.

Table of Contents

Sensitive Data Exposure: A Deep Dive

What Are the Common Causes of Sensitive Data Exposure?

Exposure of sensitive data can occur due to various factors, but the most common ones are technical issues and vulnerabilities, including:

sensitive data exposure common causes
  • Security misconfigurations: Improperly configured servers, databases, applications, cloud services, and other systems can lead to unintended data exposure. For example, a misconfigured server can become publicly visible, potentially allowing unauthorized access to sensitive data.
  • Software vulnerabilities: Unpatched vulnerabilities in software can expose sensitive data to the public, including those that may be found in operating systems (OSs), web applications, databases, and other software components.
  • Weak encryption: Insufficient or improperly implemented encryption can render data vulnerable to exposure even if it is securely stored. Weak encryption algorithms or inadequate key management practices can make it easy for outsiders to intercept sensitive information.
  • Insecure application programming interfaces (APIs): Exposed APIs can provide a direct pathway to sensitive data. That is especially true if the APIs lack proper authentication, authorization, and access controls.

What Is the Difference between Data Exposure and Data Breach?

A data breach is a deliberate effort to infiltrate a system’s defenses to gain access to sensitive information, whereas data exposure is generally unintentional and often caused by human error, misconfigurations, or lack of proper security measures. 

While data exposure may not immediately damage an organization, the data can get exploited later on for malicious purposes. Therefore, data exposure can ultimately lead to a data breach.

What Are the Impacts of Sensitive Data Exposure?

Data exposure can have devastating consequences for an organization and affected individuals. Organizations may face the following consequences:

potential impacts of sensitive data exposure
  • Regulatory violations: Depending on the severity of an exposure and the number of individuals affected, regulatory bodies may impose hefty fines for noncompliance with data privacy regulations.
  • Legal costs: Organizations can face lawsuits from affected individuals or regulatory bodies, leading to significant legal fees and potential settlements.
  • Reputational damage: Public knowledge of a data exposure can severely damage an organization’s reputation, leading to loss of customer trust, brand erosion, and difficulty in attracting new business partners.
  • Operational disruption: Data exposure, especially when it leads to a data breach, can disrupt normal business operations, as resources have to be diverted toward investigation, remediation, and customer communication. That can cause  productivity decline and revenue loss.
  • Customer churn: Customers who lose trust due to a data exposure may take their business elsewhere, negatively impacting an organization’s revenue stream.

Meanwhile, the customers or owners of compromised sensitive information may be exposed to:

  • Financial fraud
  • Identity theft
  • Emotional distress
  • Monetary loss
  • Reputational damage

What Is the Cost of a Data Exposure?

While it’s difficult to quantify the exact cost of a data exposure, the fact that it can lead to a data breach means it can be costly. Statista pegged the average cost of a data breach in the U.S. alone to be around US$9.48 million in 2023.

The healthcare industry incurred the highest monetary damage from sensitive data loss, amounting to US$11 million. Meanwhile, the average cost of a data breach in the financial sector is around US$6 million.

How Can Attack Surface Management Help Prevent the Exposure of Sensitive Data?

Given the level of damage data exposure can cause, organizations must proactively take steps to prevent it. Some of the most effective ways to guard sensitive data from exposure are embedded within ASM processes, such as asset discovery and vulnerability management.

Specifically, ASM enables organizations to:

  • Identify all assets that may hold or lead to sensitive data
  • Scan these critical assets for common security weaknesses
  • Prioritize the identified security issues according to severity and potential impact if data gets exposed
  • Continuously monitor critical assets for new weaknesses

Key Takeaways

  • Sensitive data exposure is the disclosure of critical information like Social Security numbers, credit card details, or medical records.
  • Data exposure can lead to a data breach.
  • Data exposure can result in financial loss, reputational damage, and legal action for organizations and individuals alike.
  • Security misconfigurations, including weak encryption, are major contributors to data exposure.
  • Identifying assets that hold sensitive data is the first step toward preventing the exposure of sensitive data.

Ready to see how Attaxion can help you protect against sensitive data exposure? Schedule a free demo tailored to your organization now.

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