What Is Sensitive Data Exposure and How Can It Be Avoided?

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Read more about author Anas Baig.

Organizations nowadays process tons of consumer data every day. This data ranges from the standard – names, email addresses, etc. – to personally identifiable information, like social security numbers and banking credentials. And while this type of data is an asset, especially for businesses, accidentally revealing it and causing sensitive data exposure can be very costly.

Sensitive data exposure doesn’t result just in hair-raising fines. Being careless with user information also damages companies’ reputations, attracts negative media attention, and, most importantly, can lead to further data breaches. It’s a lose-lose game for businesses and the people entrusting their private data to them.

Despite the gravity of this potential error, sensitive data exposure is preventable. Let’s first learn what sensitive data exposure is and how and why it happens, and then we will discuss how to avoid exposing confidential user information.

What Is Sensitive Data?

Sensitive data is information that needs to remain inaccessible to the public. Exposing it harms the individual and can lead to harassment, harm, identity theft, and so on. This kind of data includes personally identifiable information (PII), corporate information, and special category data.

Sensitive data examples include but are not limited to:

  • Social security number
  • Log-in information
  • Biometric data
  • Banking credentials
  • Health records
  • Home address and phone number
  • Citizenship status

What Is Sensitive Data Exposure?

As the name implies, sensitive data exposure happens when such information is accidentally leaked to the public. The term also includes cases when sensitive data is destroyed without permission, somehow altered, or lost altogether.

Data exposure tends to occur due to inadequate protection, weak encryption, database misconfigurations, misuse of data systems, or other factors. One key thing to know is when and how data is at risk of being revealed. For example, when it is in transit.

Information is incredibly vulnerable if it passes through unprotected networks and systems. Additionally, in such a state, it is often targeted by cybercriminals. Sensitive data could be intercepted by man-in-the-middle (MITM) attacks, cross-site scripting (XSS), SQL injection attacks, and much more.

Data at rest isn’t any less prone to outsider meddling. An attacker can gain access to it by exploiting various vulnerabilities. Among the most common ways to do this is with malicious software like ransomware, or with phishing attacks.

How to Protect Yourself Against Sensitive Data Exposure

Ultimately, sensitive data exposure happens because of weak security. Thus, many of the unpleasant outcomes can be avoided if you learn how to protect this information adequately.

  • Proper data classification: First and foremost, organizations must properly categorize information and store it in a logical manner. It is crucial to clearly understand what kind of data resides where, who owns it, which people can access it, and so on. Furthermore, we recommend keeping track of your system and performing regular audits.
  • Penetration testing: Penetration testing simulates an attack on your systems to gain a better understanding of existing vulnerabilities. It shows the weakest spots of your organization’s security – valuable data you can use to implement appropriate defenses against real-world threats. Performing testing regularly allows your company to constantly develop adequate data protection measures.
  • Safeguarding data at rest and in motion: Sensitive data isn’t safe in either state. So, the most crucial element here is encryption. It encodes plain info into so-called ciphertext using particular algorithms. Only those with the right key can decode the encrypted data, significantly reducing the risk of exposure. Of course, tokenization also works well, but it’s more applicable to well-structured databases.
  • Make use of various security tools: Another critical data exposure prevention aspect is utilizing the right security tools. Sometimes, all it takes is one accidental error from an employee to expose sensitive data. Because of this, we recommend conducting consistent security training.

Make it standard practice to create, store, and share log-in credentials on password managers. Work and connect to organization-related networks via VPN solutions. Prevent malware from becoming a threat with proper antivirus tools. Discard unnecessary information immediately instead of storing it.


Sensitive data can be your organization’s biggest asset. It helps you better understand your clients, meet their needs, and generate revenue. Still, many vulnerabilities are associated with it, especially if proper protective measures aren’t implemented company-wide. Sensitive data exposure can happen to any organization, big or small.

Preventing sensitive data exposure takes organizational changes, but it is well worth it.