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October 17, 2023
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 min read

A Complete Guide to Credential Exposure: Causes & Prevention

Discover how to prevent your digital credentials exposure. Learn about the types of credentials, common exposure risks, and best practices for mitigation.

A Complete Guide to Credential Exposure: Causes & Prevention
Calendar Icon White
October 17, 2023
Clock Icon
 min read

A Complete Guide to Credential Exposure: Causes & Prevention

Discover how to prevent your digital credentials exposure. Learn about the types of credentials, common exposure risks, and best practices for mitigation.


  • Understanding and managing various types of programmatic secrets and credentials is crucial for securing your digital assets
  • Security concerns are raised by factors such as unauthorized access, inadequate encryption methods, and improper management.
  • Strategies for secure management include Role-Based Access Control, Multi-Factor Authentication, and regular audits.
  • Strac prevents credential exposure by providing advanced encryption, real-time monitoring, and seamless integration across multiple platforms.

The security of your online accounts hinges on the confidentiality of your usernames and passwords. This is because exposed credentials are a leading vulnerability that could compromise your digital safety. This vulnerability can compromise not just isolated data points, but entire databases and systems, leading to unauthorized access, data breaches, and a host of other cybersecurity threats.

According to a report, more than 24 billion usernames and password combinations are circulating in cybercriminal marketplaces, many on the dark web. Now, you might be wondering how to protect yourself or your organization from the threat of credential exposure. That's where our detailed guide comes in. 

Here, we'll discuss the types of programmatic secrets and credentials, their causes, and ways to prevent them. Let’s begin.

What is Credential Exposure?

Credential exposure refers to the unauthorized disclosure of sensitive authentication information, such as usernames, passwords, API keys, and other credentials used to gain access to digital resources. It can occur through various means, including misconfigurations, data breaches, or simple human error. 

Different Types Of Exposed Credentials

Let's establish an understanding of the range of programmatic secrets and credentials that play a key role in safeguarding different facets of your digital ecosystem.

1. Cloud Credentials

Cloud Data Loss Prevention is critical when dealing with cloud-based credentials like AWS, GCP, and Azure.

AWS (Amazon Web Services)

AWS credentials are used to authenticate and authorize access to AWS services like EC2, S3, and RDS. They include access keys and secret keys. If compromised, these credentials can lead to unauthorized access to AWS resources, potentially causing data breaches and exposed credentials.



Secret access key: wJalrXUtnFEMI/K7MDENG/bPxRfiCYEXAMPLEKEY

GCP (Google Cloud Platform)

GCP credentials include service account keys, OAuth client IDs, and API keys. These are used to access and manage resources like Google Compute Engine instances and Google Cloud Storage buckets. Unauthorized access to these can also lead to data breaches.


Service account email:

Private Key JSON Code


Azure credentials include access keys, service principal credentials, and OAuth client IDs. They are used to access Azure Virtual Machines, Azure Storage accounts, and Azure SQL databases. If compromised, they can lead to unauthorized access to Azure resources.


Client ID: 01234567-89ab-cdef-0123-456789abcdef

Client Secret: [some-secret-value]

Tenant ID: 01234567-89ab-cdef-0123-456789abcdef

2. Authorization Headers and Tokens

Data exchange in modern web applications relies on navigating authorization headers and tokens, which need to be secured properly to prevent exposed credentials.

JSON Web Token (JWT)

JWTs are used for securely transmitting information between parties. They consist of a header, a payload, and a signature, all encoded in base64. They can contain sensitive information like user credentials and should be protected.


Header: {"alg": "HS256", "typ": "JWT"}

Payload: {"sub": "1234567890", "name": "John Doe", "iat": 1516239022}

Signature: SflKxwRJSMeKKF2QT4fwpMeJf36POk6yJV_adQssw5c

➡️Learn more about sensitive elements here -  Sensitive Data Catalog.

OAuth Tokens

These tokens are used in OAuth 2.0 authentication flows to provide third-party applications with limited access to user data. They can grant access to a wide range of user data and should be secured properly.


Bearer token: eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJzdWIiOiIxMjM0NTY3ODkwIiwibmFtZSI6IkpvaG4gRG9lIiwiaWF0IjoxNTE2MjM5MDIyfQ.SflKxwRJSMeKKF2QT4fwpMeJf36POk6yJV_adQssw5c

Cryptographic Keys

Cryptographic keys are like digital locks and keys that help keep your data safe. There are two main kinds: symmetric and asymmetric keys. Let's break down what each type does and why they're important against exposed credentials.

Symmetric Keys: In symmetric key algorithms, a singular key is utilized for both the encryption and decryption processes. They're fast and good for locking up a lot of data quickly. However, as you use the same key to lock and unlock the data, you must be extra careful to keep it secret.

Examples: Algorithms like Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and Data Encryption Standard (DES) often employ symmetric keys to secure data both in transit and at rest.

Asymmetric Keys: Asymmetric keys use two keys: one to lock (public key) and another to unlock (private key) the data. They're very secure because even if someone has the public key, they can't unlock the data without the private key. However, they're slower and not great for locking up large amounts of data.

Examples: RSA (Rivest–Shamir–Adleman) and ECDSA (Elliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm) are typical examples of asymmetric keys, often used in secure web communications, digital signatures, and encrypted email services.

RSA Keys

RSA keys are a special kind of asymmetric key. They're named after the people who invented them and are used extensively on the internet to keep data safe. Like other asymmetric keys, RSA keys come in pairs: public and private. You have to keep the private one really safe to avoid exposed credentials.

SSH Keys

SSH keys are another type of special key used to prove who you are when you're connecting to a server. They're like an ID badge that gets you into a secure building. Just like RSA keys, SSH keys come in pairs and you have to keep the private one safe.

3. Server/Port Connections

Sensitive server and port connection information could include credentials, IP addresses, and ports to access private systems and data. Here are a few examples:

Database Server:

A database server is a specialized computer that stores and manages databases, often containing sensitive customer information. These databases may include details such as customer names, addresses, and financial records. Users must provide specific credentials, including a username and password to access this data.

  • Hostname:
  • Port: 3306
  • Username: db_user
  • Password: [Your Database Password]

The connection information includes the server's hostname ( and port number (3306). The port number 3306 is commonly associated with MySQL database servers. This information allows authorized users to connect to the database securely, while unauthorized access is restricted.

File Server:

A file server is a computer or networked device that stores and manages files, including confidential company documents. These documents may contain sensitive information like business plans, financial reports, or proprietary data. To access these files remotely, users must provide authentication credentials, including a username and password.

  • Hostname:
  • Port: 22
  • Username: user123
  • Password: [Your File Server Password]

The connection information includes the server's hostname ( and port number (22). 

Port 22 is commonly used for Secure Shell (SSH) connections, which are often employed for secure file transfer. 

The provided credentials enable users to securely access and retrieve files from the server, minimizing the risk of credential exposure.

Web Application Server:

A web application server hosts web applications or services that users access via web browsers. Depending on their purpose, these applications may handle a wide range of sensitive data. The connection information includes

  • Hostname:
  • Port: 443
  • Protocol: HTTPS

Port 443 is commonly used for secure HTTP (HTTPS) connections, ensuring that user data is encrypted and secure while being sent from the browser to the server. 

No specific credentials are provided here, as HTTPS relies on SSL/TLS certificates for encryption, ensuring the confidentiality and integrity of data transferred between the client and the server.

4. Database Credentials

Database credentials are sensitive pieces of information used to authenticate and authorize access to databases. They typically include usernames and passwords.

Database Connection Strings

These strings are used to establish connections to databases and contain critical information for accessing a database server. A typical database connection string includes the following elements:

  • Username: The username associated with the database account
  • Password: The secret password for the database account
  • Hostname: The address of the database server
  • Port: Refers to the port number on the database server
  • Database: The name of the specific database to connect to.

For example, a PostgreSQL connection string might look like this:


These connection strings must be kept secure, as they provide direct access to the database.

Webhook URLs

Webhook URLs are endpoints that enable one application to send data to another in real time. They are used for various purposes, such as integrating services or triggering events. Webhook URLs can sometimes contain API keys or authentication tokens for secure access to the receiving application's API.


5. CI/CD Tokens

CI/CD (Continuous Integration and Continuous Deployment) tokens are used in the software development pipeline to automate building, testing, and deploying code. These tokens are often required for authentication and authorization when interacting with CI/CD platforms like Jenkins, Travis CI, or CircleCI. 

These tokens should be treated as sensitive information, as they grant access to the build and deployment processes, which can significantly impact the application's functionality and security.

Example: Token: abc123xyz456

6. Passwords

Passwords are one of the most common forms of credentials used for user authentication. They provide access to various systems, applications, and online accounts. Passwords should be securely stored, hashed, and regularly updated to prevent unauthorized access. Strong password policies are essential to enhance security.

A strong password might look like this: IAN#aL5$zN7@yQ

7. Less Sensitive Secrets

Less sensitive secrets may not be as sensitive or high-risk as others but they still require protection to ensure the integrity and privacy of applications and systems.

  • Idempotent Keys: Idempotent keys are used in API requests to ensure that the same request can be safely retried without causing unintended side effects. These keys help prevent duplicate operations when a request is made multiple times.
  • Publishable Keys: Publishable keys are often used in payment processing systems to identify and authenticate a merchant or user when interacting with a payment gateway. 

8. UUIDs

UUIDs (Universally Unique Identifiers) are 128-bit unique identifiers often used in databases and distributed systems to ensure each record or entity has a globally unique identifier. They are generated using algorithms that make them highly unlikely to collide with other UUIDs.

Here are some examples to illustrate when UUIDs may or may not be sensitive, especially when used in URLs:

Public Blog Post: A UUID used to identify a public blog post can be safely used in a URL without revealing any confidential information.


Public Product in E-commerce Website: A UUID used to identify a public product on an e-commerce website can also be safely used in a URL.


User's Account: A UUID used to identify a user's account can be considered sensitive. Sharing it publicly in a URL could expose users to risks like unauthorized access.


Confidential Document: A UUID that identifies a confidential document in a company's internal document management system should not be shared publicly in a URL.


What are the Causes of Credential Exposure?

Understanding the root causes of credential exposure is crucial for implementing effective security measures. Here's a comprehensive look at them:

1. Password Reuse

It refers to the practice of using the same password across multiple platforms or services. This is often done for convenience, as remembering multiple passwords can be challenging.

If one service where you've reused a password is compromised, attackers can potentially gain access to all other services where you've used the same password. This is known as "credential stuffing."

In 2016, the LinkedIn data breach exposed millions of passwords. Attackers then used these passwords to gain unauthorized access to accounts on other platforms where users had reused their LinkedIn passwords.

2. Weak Passwords

There is nothing worse than having a password that is easy to guess or crack. Examples include "123456," "password," or easily available personal information like birthdays. Easily guessable passwords can be cracked using brute-force or dictionary attacks, leading to exposed credentials.

In 2017, the Equifax data breach was partially attributed to the use of "admin" as both the username and password for a non-U.S. database

3. Poor Password Storage and Management

There are several ways to make your passwords insecure, such as storing them in plaintext, using weak encryption algorithms, or not using encryption at all. Poorly stored passwords are an easy target for attackers who gain access to a system.

In 2019, Facebook admitted to storing hundreds of millions of user passwords in plaintext, accessible to thousands of its employees.

How to Prevent Credential Exposure?

Preventing credential exposure is a complex approach that involves both technological and human elements. To ensure the secure management of all types of credentials, it's advisable to follow a DLP Security Checklist and consider the below strategies:

1. Implement Data Layer Protection

Data layer protection involves securing the database where credentials are stored. This can include encryption, access controls, and other security measures. You can implement data layer protection so that even if an attacker gains access to your system, the protection can prevent them from easily extracting sensitive information.

How to Implement

  • Use strong encryption algorithms to protect data at rest and in transit 
  • Limit database access only to authorized personnel and applications.

2. Add a Layer of Multi-factor Authentication (MFA)

MFA requires users to provide two or more verification factors to gain access to a resource. In this way, it is very difficult for an attacker to gain unauthorized access, even with a password..

How to Implement

  • Offer MFA options like SMS codes, authentication apps, or hardware tokens
  • Make MFA mandatory for accessing sensitive systems to mitigate the risk of exposed credentials.

3. Enable Captcha Authentication

CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart) is a type of challenge-response test designed to differentiate between human and automated access. It can prevent automated attacks like brute force and credential stuffing.

How to Implement

  • Add Captcha challenges to login pages and other sensitive areas of your application.

4. Regularly Update Security Processes

Cyber threats constantly evolve, and your security measures must keep pace. One should regularly review and update the security policies, procedures, and technologies to prevent credential exposure.

How to Implement

  • Conduct regular security audits, update software and hardware, and train staff on the latest security best practices.

5. Monitor for Insider Threats

Insiders can cause exposed credentials as they have access to sensitive information and systems. Insider threats are posed by individuals within an organization, such as employees, contractors, or business partners, who have access to organizational security information.

How to Implement

  • Use monitoring tools to track user behavior and access patterns
  • Conduct background checks and limit access based on the principle of least privilege.

How Can Strac Help You Prevent Credential Exposure?

Strac is a robust Data Loss Prevention (DLP) solution that helps prevent exposed credential risks and secure sensitive data. Here's what Strac can do for you:

Strac SaaS Integrations
  • Real-Time Detection and Redaction of Sensitive Information: Using advanced AI algorithms, Strac scans various types of documents and text to identify and redact sensitive data like Personally Identifiable Information (PII) and Protected Health Information (PHI)
  • Compliance with Regulatory Standards: Non-compliance can result in hefty fines and damage to reputation. Strac helps businesses comply with various regulatory standards such as PCI, HIPAA, SOC 2, GDPR, and CCPA.
  • AI-Driven Accuracy in Data Classification: Strac's AI algorithms are highly accurate in detecting sensitive data across various formats like PDF, JPEG, PNG, DOCX, and more
  • Tokenization for Secure Data Handling: Strac's tokenization feature allows businesses to securely handle customer data without storing it in plain text, further enhancing data security 
  • Seamless Integration with Popular SaaS Platforms: Many data leaks occur through commonly used SaaS platforms, making it crucial to secure them. Strac offers no-code integrations with popular SaaS platforms like Zendesk, Slack, Gmail, and Office 365.

Founding Engineer. 9 years at Amazon and AWS.

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