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The Risks of Sharing Sensitive Information and How to Avoid Them

Exchanging information online is an essential part of conducting business in this decade. Even businesses that only provide in-person services, such as construction companies and pet groomers, still utilize the internet regularly to order supplies, advertise their brand, run payroll, and many more activities.

Sharing sensitive information can expose individuals and organizations to various risks, including data breaches, identity theft, financial loss, reputational damage, and legal complications. Businesses should conduct a thorough risk assessment and make appropriate changes to how they share sensitive information online.

Understanding The Risks

In our interconnected world, businesses face many risks from sharing information online. Understanding potential cybersecurity risks is a crucial first step in developing a plan to protect sensitive information. Some of the most common risks to businesses include:

  • Data breaches – There are many ways that a hacker can gain unauthorized access to data. Depending on the nature of the stolen data, they may use it to create targeted attacks against customers, publish unflattering or proprietary company information, or hold the data for ransom until the affected business pays a hefty fee. Once hackers gain access to sensitive information, it may float around on the dark web forever.
  • Identify theft – Most people know how identity theft can affect individuals when their social security number or credit card information gets into the wrong hands. Business identity theft is also a real threat. When nefarious actors get ahold of a business’s Tax Identification Number (TIN) or the owner’s personal information, they can impersonate the business to apply for loans or open lines of credit fraudulently.
  • Social engineering – Cyber criminals use a variety of social engineering strategies, including phishing, to exploit human vulnerabilities. Once they gain the user’s trust, they may try to learn login credentials, financial details, sensitive business information, or spread malware.
  • Data aggregation and profiling – Many websites and social media platforms collect information on individuals to create a profile that they can use to customize the user experience and provide targeted advertising. Although this practice is widely used and beneficial in many cases, there are a few ethical concerns because some entities may use this personal information to manipulate the user’s choices and influence their perceptions and behaviors. Many platforms sell user data to third parties. Consumers typically agree to a privacy policy when sharing data online, but only a few states have enforceable data privacy laws.

At some point, most businesses will be affected by a data breach or other online attack. For this reason, all businesses should not only try to prevent cyber attacks but also take steps to prevent data loss and other adverse impacts when a breach does occur.

Impacts of Cyber Attacks and Unauthorized Access to Information

When sensitive information falls into the wrong hands, the results can be devastating, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Some of the effects may include:

  • Financial loss – Phishing attacks, ransomware, scams, and data breaches can all result in financial loss. Cybercriminals may take money as part of the attack, as seen in wire transfer scams, ransomware attacks, and situations where hackers obtain financial account credentials. Additionally, businesses suffer financially through lost productivity while handling a breach, legal fees, and other costs of recovering from a cybersecurity incident.
  • Operational disruptions – Recovering from any cybersecurity incident takes time and effort. In most cases, some employees will need to step away from their regular tasks to handle the incident. If the computer network is damaged or unusable, operations may need to stop entirely until the network is again functional. Businesses may get behind on work during this time and potentially lose customers.
  • Legal complications – Several states in the United States have recently passed data privacy laws that spell out steps businesses should take to protect consumer data. Businesses that operate internationally may be subject to other laws, such as the GDPR in the European Union. If a business violates these laws and someone gains unauthorized access to a consumer’s data, the business could face legal trouble. This unauthorized access could happen either through a business’s failure to implement reasonable security measures or a business’s choice to share data in unauthorized ways.
  • Damaged reputation – When unauthorized individuals gain access to sensitive information, customers often lose trust in the affected business. It can be challenging for businesses to rebuild their reputation when their customers’ personal information is compromised.

Identifying Your Risk Level

Each business faces unique risks when sharing sensitive information. Risks can vary depending on the business sector, business size, type of data collected and shared, whether or not they contract with third parties, types of software and websites used, and many other factors. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing the risk of sharing sensitive information.

All businesses should conduct a thorough annual privacy assessment and continuously monitor data privacy risks throughout the year. Additionally, businesses should carefully assess risks when making significant operational changes, such as adding new third-party vendors or installing new software.

Small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) sometimes struggle to meet cybersecurity best practices due to a lack of funds and resources. Their lack of security can increase their risk of breaches and other incidents. Cybercriminals know this and may specifically target SMBs because it could be an easy way to make money. Wise SMB owners can take steps to protect sensitive information and prevent cyberattacks, even with limited resources.

Steps To Reduce Risk

Some specific steps that SMBs can take include:

  1. Evaluate if Sharing is Truly Necessary – Limiting what you share is the first step to reducing the risk of sharing sensitive information. Businesses can assess whether or not sharing certain information is essential and determine if there are alternative methods to achieve the desired outcome without disclosing sensitive data.
  2. Know Your Audience – Whenever businesses share sensitive information, it is crucial to understand who can access that data and what they will use it for. Businesses should only share information with third-party vendors on a need-to-know basis after proving they have excellent data security practices. Verify the source before sharing anything if a person or entity requests information unexpectedly. Suspicious requests for information are often phishing attempts.
  3. Use a Secure Communication Channel – Utilize encrypted communication channels to transmit sensitive information. Encryption ensures that the data remains unreadable to unauthorized parties even if intercepted. Secure methods include secure email services, encrypted messaging apps, and file encryption tools. Additionally, you should verify that a website is secure before entering sensitive information. Secure websites begin with “https” rather than “http,” and they have a padlock symbol on the left side of the address bar. However, just because a website is secure does not mean it is legitimate. Always verify the correct spelling and name of the website.
  4. Implement Strong Security Practices – Some basic security practices go a long way in preventing most types of threats. These steps could include installing and regularly updating antivirus software and firewalls, creating strong passwords, and utilizing multi-factor authentication. Individuals and businesses should also back up important information so that if something does happen, they will still have access to the data. Businesses should develop and implement protocols that specify how employees can safely share sensitive information.
  5. Provide Adequate Training For Employees – Employees need to understand the importance of protecting sensitive information before they will follow protocols. Businesses should conduct regular cybersecurity training for employees that focuses on recognizing phishing and other social engineering attempts and following safe practices for handling sensitive data.
  6. Comply With State and Federal Regulations – Several states, including Virginia and California, have recently enacted laws that require businesses to improve data privacy. Other states are sure to follow. Lawmakers based these laws on cybersecurity best practices, so generally speaking, businesses that adhere to these laws demonstrate a high level of data privacy and data security. 
  7. Detect and Respond to Potential Breaches – Unfortunately, in this day and age, most businesses will experience a cyber attack at some point. A carefully developed incident response plan can make a big difference in protecting sensitive information. This plan should include procedures for identifying, containing, investigating, and mitigating the impact of the incident and communicating with affected parties and relevant authorities. You should regularly test the incident response plan to identify gaps and make improvements. 
  8. Utilize Outside Tools to Develop a Strong Security and Privacy Program – It may feel intimidating for SMBs to protect sensitive information from threats. However, businesses don’t need to do it alone. uRISQ is a tool that helps businesses manage their privacy and security program. It is designed to meet each business’s unique needs in a way that fits your budget.

Taking Control of the Risks

The risks of sharing sensitive information online are significant and can have severe consequences for SMBs. However, businesses can stay one step ahead of many of these risks by understanding these risks, implementing appropriate protocols and security measures, and utilizing security tools like uRISQ. The most important thing a business can do is take the next step, whether that is starting with the basics or fine-tuning an already successful data privacy program. Protecting sensitive information should be a priority for businesses of all sizes, and it doesn’t need to be as complicated as it seems.