API Security

Sensitive Data Exposure: What It Is and How to Avoid It

April 10, 2022
5 mins

The amount of sensitive data we share with outsiders has skyrocketed thanks to the technological advances that undoubtedly make our lives easier. However, these same advancements come with a cost—increasing exposure of our personal data.

So, how is sensitive data exposed?

What Is Sensitive Data Exposure?

A sensitive data exposure occurs when an organization unknowingly exposes its customers' private information, leading to accidental destruction, alteration, or distribution of sensitive data.

Personally identifiable information (PII) such as financial, business, and personal data is not the only sensitive information that needs to be protected. Other forms of sensitive data that need rigorous safeguarding include:

  • Race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, political associations, or philosophical beliefs
  • Passwords/login credentials
  • Genetic and biometric data
  • Trade-union membership
  • Health-related information
  • Details surrounding an individual's sex life or sexual orientation

Sensitive Data Exposure vs. Data Breach

It's important to remember that sensitive data exposure is different from a data breach, even though these terms are often used interchangeably.

A data breach occurs when a third party with malicious intent gains unauthorized access to sensitive information. This typically occurs when sensitive data is exposed; however, breaches still happen without a preexisting exposure.

On the other hand, it's possible for an organization to have sensitive data exposure without having their information breached. Just because an exposure exists doesn't mean it will be breached, but it significantly increases the chances.

How Do Sensitive Data Exposures Lead to Attacks?

The more you know about how data is prone to exposure, the better equipped your organization will be at mitigating potential attacks on this sensitive information. And since regulations, like the GDPR and CCAP, require organizations to protect sensitive data or face serious consequences, it's essential to know specifically where your company's sensitive files may run into trouble.  

Digital data is found in several different states, and to better understand where attacks occur, we need to take a quick look at them first.

Data at Rest

Many web applications typically store data at rest in servers, files, networks, and databases. While this data appears to be less vulnerable to attacks, the security of this information is entirely dependent on the protocols in place to protect it. Cyberattacks such as SQL injections or malicious payloads are used to circumvent security measures and gain unauthorized access to stored data.

Data in Motion

As data is exchanged between servers, channels, and application programming interfaces (APIs), it's at risk of interception by third parties along the way. Cybercriminals take advantage of security flaws that exist when two applications or servers communicate without encryption. One common attack is known as a man-in-the-middle (MITM), where the attacker intercepts and monitors traffic and communication.

Data in Use

Unlike data in motion or rest, data in use is a reflection of the current activity happening within an organization's IT infrastructure. This means that it can be actively updated, processed, or erased at any time, rather than simply being stored for later access. Data in this state is equally vulnerable to attacks and even more likely to be initiated by insider attacks.

Now that you know where data can be attacked, let’s look at the way these attacks happen.

Common Ways Data is Infiltrated:

  • Broken access controls - Broken access control attacks rank #1 on OWASP's Top 10 list for web applications in 2021 and occur when an unauthorized user breaks through preexisting security barriers put in place to protect your data and applications.
  • Weak or missing TSL/HTTPS - Lack of or weak encryptions is also a major cause of sensitive data exposure. Storing plain text files containing personal information onto your website leaves it vulnerable to exploits.
  • SQL injection flaw - SQL injections occur when attackers introduce malicious queries into the system to extract information about users or other important details with a simple command.
  • Phishing - Phishing attacks are designed to mislead users and get them to provide sensitive information via emails, instant messages, and text messages.
  • Insider attacks - Insider attacks occur when current or former employees with authorized access initiate an attack by breaking in and stealing data, often going unnoticed because most organizations focus on outside attacks rather than those coming from within.

How to Prevent Sensitive Data Exposure

While web applications and web surfaces have their own vulnerabilities, however, Gartner predicts that APIs will be the main attack vector by 2022. To help prevent exposures, OWASP suggests you take these minimum steps against cryptographic failures (another name for sensitive data exposure).

  • Identify, filter, and classify client data
  • Avoid storing non-essential data
  • Encrypt data at rest
  • Update algorithms regularly
  • Encrypt data in transit (with TSL)
  • Disable caching for sensitive data
  • Enforce authorization for all APIs (even internal)
  • Address excessive data exposure vulnerabilities

While these steps offer a great starting point, taking advanced measures will ensure your data is well protected. We recommend taking some advanced security measures.

Advanced Recommendations

  • Automated security - Use an automated end-to-end vulnerability scanning solution to improve your security posture by benchmarking web applications against the OWASP Top 10 list. Automated API testing platforms detect potential problems before they grow into something major.
  • Continuous testing - Integrating security into software that includes continuous testing from development through production gives you complete coverage and ensures there are no loopholes for attackers to exploit..

As the world continues to accelerate development cycles, organizations should never compromise security to meet the demands of digital transformation. With APIsec, you won't have to.

APIsec is the only platform that offers an automated, comprehensive way to test your company's API security. With ten times the coverage of manual pen testing, APIsec enables in-depth security assessments for your entire breadth of APIs. The automated platform tests against both known vulnerabilities and newly found threats to give you peace of mind with every vulnerability test.

Reach out to a security expert and see how APIsec protects APIs from sensitive data exposures, or run a free API pen test to see how your API may be vulnerable right now.

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