Data security is the process of safeguarding digital information throughout its entire life cycle to protect it from corruption, theft, or unauthorized access. It covers everything—hardware, software, storage devices, and user devices; access and administrative controls; and organizations’ policies and procedures.
Data security uses tools and technologies that enhance the visibility of a company’s data and how it is being used. These tools can protect data through processes like data masking, encryption, and redaction of sensitive information.
What Is Data Security, the process also helps organizations streamline their auditing procedures and comply with increasingly stringent data protection regulations.
A robust data security management and strategy process enable an organization to protect its information against cyberattacks. It also helps them minimize the risk of human error and insider threats, which continue to be the cause of many data breaches.
Video: 10 Facts You Need to Know About Data Security
Common Data Security Types
This type of data security measure includes limiting both physical and digital access to critical systems and data. This includes making sure all computers and devices are protected with mandatory login entry, and that physical spaces can only be entered by authorized personnel.
Similar to access controls, authentication refers specifically to accurately identifying users before they have access to data. This usually includes passwords, PIN numbers, security tokens, swipe cards, or biometrics.
Backups & Recovery
Good data security means you have a plan to securely access data in the event of system failure, disaster, data corruption, or breach. You’ll need a backup data copy, stored on a separate format such as a physical disk, local network, or cloud to recover if needed.
You’ll want to dispose of data properly and on a regular basis. Data erasure employs software to completely overwrite data on any storage device and is more secure than standard data wiping. Data erasure verifies that the data is unrecoverable and therefore won’t fall into the wrong hands.
By using data masking software, information is hidden by obscuring letters and numbers with proxy characters. This effectively masks key information even if an unauthorized party gains access to it. The data changes back to its original form only when an authorized user receives it.
Comprehensive data security means that your systems can endure or recover from failures. Building resiliency into your hardware and software means that events like power outages or natural disasters won’t compromise security.
A computer algorithm transforms text characters into an unreadable format via encryption keys. Only authorized users with the proper corresponding keys can unlock and access the information. Everything from files and a database to email communications can — and should — be encrypted to some extent.
Why Is Data Security Important?
There are many reasons why data security is important to organizations in all industries all over the world. Organizations are legally obliged to protect customer and user data from being lost or stolen and ending up in the wrong hands.
For example, industry and state regulations like the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), and the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) outline organizations’ legal obligations to protect data.
What Is Data Security
Data cybersecurity is also crucial to preventing the reputational risk that accompanies a data breach. A high-profile hack or loss of data can result in customers losing trust in an organization and taking their business to a competitor. This also runs the risk of serious financial losses, along with fines, legal payments, and damage repair in case sensitive data is lost.
Data Security vs. Data Protection vs. Data Privacy
Data security is often confused with similar terms like “data protection” and “data privacy” because they all refer to ways to secure your data. However, the difference between these terms lies in the reasons for securing that data in the first place, as well as the methods for doing so:
- Data security refers to protecting your data against unauthorized access or use that could result in exposure, deletion, or corruption of that data. An example of data security would be using encryption to prevent hackers from using your data if it’s breached.
- Data protection refers to the creation of backups or duplication of data to protect against accidental erasure or loss. An example of data protection would be creating a backup of your data, so if it was corrupted (or if a natural disaster destroyed your servers), you wouldn’t lose that data forever.
- Data privacy refers to concerns regarding how your data is handled — regulatory concerns, notification, and consent of use, etc. An example of data privacy is gaining consent to collect data from website visitors by using cookies.
Type Of Data Security
Below are several common issues faced by organizations of all sizes as they attempt to secure sensitive data.
A large percentage of data breaches are not the result of a malicious attack but are caused by negligent or accidental exposure of sensitive data. It is common for an organization’s employees to share, grant access to, lose, or mishandle valuable data, either by accident or because they are not aware of security policies.
This major problem can be addressed by employee training, but also by other measures, such as data loss prevention (DLP) technology and improved access controls.
Phishing and Other Social Engineering Attacks
Social engineering attacks are a primary vector used by attackers to access sensitive data. They involve manipulating or tricking individuals into providing private information or access to privileged accounts.
Phishing is a common form of social engineering. It involves messages that appear to be from a trusted source, but in fact, are sent by an attacker. When victims comply, for example by providing private information or clicking a malicious link, attackers can compromise their device or gain access to a corporate network.
Insider threats are employees who inadvertently or intentionally threaten the security of an organization’s data. There are three types of insider threats:
- Non-malicious insiders—these are users that can cause harm accidentally, via negligence, or because they are unaware of security procedures.
- Malicious insiders—these are users who actively attempt to steal data or cause harm to the organization for personal gain.
- Compromised insiders—these are users who are not aware that their accounts or credentials were compromised by an external attacker. The attacker can then perform a malicious activity, pretending to be a legitimate user.
Ransomware is a major threat to data in companies of all sizes. Ransomware is malware that infects corporate devices and encrypts data, making it useless without the decryption key. Attackers display a ransom message asking for payment to release the key, but in many cases, even paying the ransom is ineffective and the data is lost.
Many types of ransomware can spread rapidly, and infect large parts of a corporate network. If an organization does not maintain regular backups, or if the ransomware manages to infect the backup servers, there may be no way to recover.
Learn more in the detailed guide to Ransomware protection
Data Loss in the Cloud
Many organizations are moving data to the cloud to facilitate easier sharing and collaboration. However, when data moves to the cloud, it is more difficult to control and prevent data loss. Users access data from personal devices and over unsecured networks. It is all too easy to share a file with unauthorized parties, either accidentally or maliciously.
SQL injection (SQLi) is a common technique used by attackers to gain illicit access to databases, steal data, and perform unwanted operations. It works by adding malicious code to a seemingly innocent database query.
SQL injection manipulates SQL code by adding special characters to user input that changes the context of the query. The database expects to process a user input but instead starts processing malicious code that advances the attacker’s goals. SQL injection can expose customer data, and intellectual property, or give attackers administrative access to a database, which can have severe consequences.
SQL injection vulnerabilities are typically the result of insecure coding practices. It is relatively easy to prevent SQL injection if coders use secure mechanisms for accepting user inputs, which are available in all modern database systems.
Common Data Security Solutions and Techniques
There are several technologies and practices that can improve data security. No one technique can solve the problem, but by combining several of the techniques below, organizations can significantly improve their security posture.
Data Discovery and Classification
Modern IT environments store data on servers, endpoints, and cloud systems. Visibility over data flows is an important first step in understanding what data is at risk of being stolen or misused. To properly protect your data, you need to know the type of data, where it is, and what it is used for. Data discovery and classification tools can help.
Data masking lets you create a synthetic version of your organizational data, which you can use for software testing, training, and other purposes that don’t require real data. The goal is to protect data while providing a functional alternative when needed.
Identity Access Management
Identity and Access Management (IAM) is a business process, strategy, and technical framework that enables organizations to manage digital identities. IAM solutions allow IT, administrators, to control user access to sensitive information within an organization.
Data encryption is a method of converting data from a readable format (plaintext) to an unreadable encoded format (ciphertext). Only after decrypting the encrypted data using the decryption key, the data can be read or processed.
Best Practices for Ensuring Data Security
A comprehensive data security plan has a lot of moving parts, all working together in real-time to ensure your data is safe. And the specific implementation of your plan will depend on the size and structure of your organization’s computing systems.
So what follows here is not meant to be a step-by-step breakdown of everything you need to do to create perfect data security; it’s an overview of the heavy-hitting concepts that come together to create a good foundation for data security.
Secure Your Information
An essential part of data security is securing your data where it’s stored. Here are three best practices for improving the security around the places you store yours both digitally and physically:
- Manage access to sensitive information. Managing who has access to your data based on their user ID is a great way to keep sensitive information restricted to only those who need to see it. This limits the amount of damage that can be done if someone’s username or login details are stolen.
- Encrypt everything. Encryption is one of the best tools that you have to keep data safe. It helps you ensure that hackers can’t use any information they might get ahold of. You should also make sure you encrypt transmissions to add another layer of security to any information you send.
- Protect user data at the source. When customers and employees log in for the first time (or repeated times), you can verify and secure their information with secure authentication practices like social login. This not only simplifies the process and reduces the risk of churn, but it also helps organize all of their sensitive data in a single location instead of in multiple databases and spreadsheets that can easily be lost.
Prepare For Threats
Cybersecurity threats are constantly evolving and changing because hackers are always looking for gaps in your security systems. So data security isn’t a “set it and forget it” activity — it’s an everyday activity.
Here are the top ways to prepare for potential attacks (and the aftermath of any breach that occurs):
- Test your system(s). The best defense is a good offense, and the best offense in secure data recovery is working to ensure you don’t lose your data in the first place. But while automation can help you monitor your systems, it simply cannot match the creativity of a human being trying to break in. So it’s best to either create an internal team to stress-test your systems or find someone outside your company to do it.
- Educate your employees. Common data security attacks like spear-phishing emails and USB traps target employees who are unaware of the risks and have let their guard down. Circulating everyday tips like those from Proofpoint or implementing Inspired eLearning’s executive training can go a long way toward mitigating these risks.
- Have an incident management plan. Having a comprehensive response plan for instances where your data is compromised can significantly limit the impact it has on your organization. Yes, IT needs to be aware of what to do, but you should also create guidelines for management, letting employees know, and the next steps for recovery. (See how Reddit handled their recent breach.)
- Create a secure data recovery plan. In case of corruption or an unhappy scenario where something you need has been deleted or compromised, it’s important to be prepared to deal with it. For many teams, this means having a backup copy of critical data that is regularly updated. The backup itself will have to be protected and should also be separate from the rest of your data.
Delete Unused Data
There will come a time when your data becomes outdated or is no longer in use. It’s important to get rid of that data when this happens because it could still harm your users if it were to be breached.
Take your users’ old passwords, for example — since 65% of people reuse their passwords across multiple sites, an old password could still be used to breach their data at another company if they haven’t changed it on all of their digital accounts.
Here are two best practices for deleting unused data:
- Know how and when to let go. When it’s time to get rid of digital information, you need to dispose of it properly. When you have to throw out sensitive information on paper, you shred it. You cut up your credit cards and write “VOID” on checks before disposing of them. Digital data is no different. Make sure that when you’re wiping information, it’s really gone and not lingering somewhere that will come back to bite you.
- Don’t forget physical copies. If any of your backups are on paper, are stored on a thumb drive, are X-rays or microfilm or negatives — or anything else that’s physical and totally separate from your digital systems — don’t forget about them. When you’re deleting unused information, make sure part of your process is double-checking to see whether that information has a physical counterpart and, if so, destroying it in kind.
Run Compliance Audits
There are standards that can help lower your risk of a data breach. There are also a few regulations you’re likely required to follow by law that will help you do the same thing.
The regulations that apply to your business will depend heavily on industry and location, so you’ll need to do your homework to assess which ones those may be. But if you’re processing personally identifiable information, it’s in your best interest to audit yourself and ensure your business is in compliance.
Not only will this keep you out of legal trouble, but it can significantly improve your data’s security.
Your employees are the frontline for the security of your data now more than ever. So encouraging the right behaviors is essential to ensuring that a breach doesn’t happen to your business.
One of the best ways to do that is to create a better user experience for your team. A simplified user experience makes it much easier for them to follow cybersecurity best practices, like using unique passwords for each application or using longer, more complex passwords (which are harder to guess or crack).