In today’s digital world, keeping sensitive data secure from theft and vulnerability can be incredibly challenging. More so because of the widespread adoption of cloud computing.
To understand how to protect sensitive data from getting into the wrong hands, you first must know what counts as sensitive data.
In this guide, we’ll explore sensitive data in more detail—what you can do to keep your sensitive data where it belongs and as secure as possible.
What Is Sensitive Data Anyway?
Sensitive data, also known as private data or information, is any information that must be protected and kept inaccessible to the public unless specifically granted permission.
The legal definition of sensitive information describes it as any information that must be protected against unauthorized disclosure, including PII (personally identifiable information), PHI (protected health information), and more.
It’s crucial to impose tougher restrictions when dealing with this type of data, especially when it pertains to individual privacy and property rights, for ethical or legal reasons. For instance, a data breach could leave a company exposed to grave risks like corporate spying, cyber threats, or privacy breaches of their clients and/or of their workers.
Similarly, a data breach in a government commission could give foreign powers access to government secrets.
How Sensitive Data Works
As a rule of thumb, if you doubt whether the data is personal or not, treat it as if it were. But different industries have agreed on a specific uniform standard to measure any specific data’s sensitivity. This standard is based on three parts: Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability (typically referred to as the “CIA triad”).
At its core, confidentiality is equivalent to privacy. It involves countermeasures, such as simple awareness training to understand security risks and sophisticated cybersecurity software, to prevent unauthorized access to sensitive information and ensure that only the authorized people can access it.
Examples of confidentiality countermeasures include:
- Data encryption
- Key fobs
- Two-factor authentication
- Security tokens
- Storing in hard copy only
- Limiting information transmission frequency
Integrity involves countermeasures that help maintain data consistency, accuracy, and trustworthiness over a specific period of time.
Examples of integrity countermeasures include:
- File permissions
- Version control
- Audit logs
- User access controls
- Cryptographic checksums
Availability focuses entirely on sensitive data being available when needed.
Examples of availability countermeasures include:
- Hardware maintenance with immediate repairs
- Software patching
- Safeguards against data loss or data interruption during natural disasters and fire
- Ensuring adequate communication bandwidth
- Extra security equipment and software like firewalls and additional servers
- Fast and adaptive disaster recovery with a comprehensive disaster recovery plan
Sensitive Data Example #1: Intellectual Property and Trade Secrets
Nearly all companies store proprietary information in their network, in a document management system, or with a third party. For a hardware developer, this can be semantics, while for a software developer, this could be code.
Trade secrets and intellectual property can also include product specifications, competitive research, or anything that would fall under a non-disclosure agreement with a vendor.
Suppose Company X is developing a laptop and gives Company Y the responsibility to help with a design component. If Company Y gets breached, it leaves Company X vulnerable, putting their sensitive data at the risk of exposure.
Sensitive Data Example #2: Employee Data and Customer Information
Employee data and customer information are mostly similar. It includes the names, home addresses, payment card information, social security numbers, emails, application attributes, banking information, usernames, and passwords of your employees and customers.
Since all of this is sensitive information, every organization must take the necessary measures to store it safely.
Sensitive Data Example #3: Industry-Specific Data
There can be specific examples of sensitive data that must be protected depending on your industry.
For instance, those working in the healthcare sector should take proper measures to protect digitally stored medical records and medical research data while those in retail should focus on safeguarding the payment information of their customers.
Moreover, customers aren’t always aware that they provided you with information—or where that information is stored.
Hospitals are a common example of this kind of arrangement. Patients may willingly provide information to their healthcare providers, but if the hospital decides to store the information through a third party, the patient may not know that.
Sensitive Data Example #4: Protected Health Information (PHI)
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) defines PHI under the US law as any information about health status, provision of health care, or payment of health care that is created or collected by a Covered entity (or a third-party associate) that can be linked to a specific individual.
You never know how a malicious agent may use such confidential information.
Sensitive Data Example #5: Operational and Inventory Data
This type of sensitive data includes any generalized business operations or inventory figures. For example, businesses that sell physical products wouldn’t want their sales figures disclosed publicly or accessed by their rivals.
Basically, sensitive data isn’t always personal or individual data. Rather it’s company-wide information that could negatively affect business decisions, reputation, and operations if assessed by the wrong people.
How to Protect Sensitive Data and Prevent Exposure
What can you do or have done to identify and protect your sensitive data?
Here are three comprehensive steps that can help you protect sensitive data and prevent it from getting exposed.
Step 1: Identify All Sensitive Data
You must take the necessary measures to identify and group all data based on their sensitivity. Think of this step as classifying sensitive data.
This may look like an easy task, but that definitely isn’t the case.
You’ll always see a change in system complexity over a period of time, especially because new data pops up almost every day. As a result, the overall process of finding sensitive data becomes constant and highly dynamic.
Organizations should also be able to identify relevant data under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Step 2: Respond To and Assess Data Risks ASAP
Data theft and data leakage is a never-ending problem. Plus, since it affects all sectors in an organization or government unit, one cannot categorize it as an IT problem solely.
What makes matters worse is that cybercriminals are always targeting sensitive data. Precisely why you should take immediate measures to assess the overall risk to your sensitive data after separating it from other data.
Risk assessment is an incredibly crucial aspect of protecting sensitive data. You have to first identify all the users, devices, networks, applications, and information and then categorize them based on how a data leak would impact the organization.
Remember, sensitive information is “high risk” whereas other inconsequential information like marketing data might be “low risk.”
The last step here is to assess all of these potential attack vectors and decide whether you want to accept, transfer, mitigate, or refuse the risk.
Some of these risks include the liability cost of the sensitive data, the location where you plan on storing the sensitive data, the movement of the sensitive data from one source or domain to another, the size of the sensitive data, and so on.
Step 3: Monitor and Implement Adequate Security Measures
Creating viable security measures should be done with a lot of care so they can effectively safeguard all your sensitive data against theft.
Once that’s done, the next step should be to continuously monitor the steps to ensure there are no vulnerabilities or security gaps in the process. You should assign all of the protection measures to the sensitive data you’ve found beforehand, as well as the newer types of sensitive data.
Here are a few security measures you can undertake to protect the information you keep:
- Remind employees to avoid leaving sensitive papers out on the desk when they’re away from their workstations. Instead, ask them to lock all files containing personally identifiable information in file cabinets.
- Encrypt all sensitive information sent to third parties over public networks. You can also encrypt email transmissions within your business if they contain personally identifiable information.
- Identify all connections to the networks where you store sensitive information, and access the vulnerability of every connection to commonly known or reasonably foreseeable attacks.
- Run up-to-date antivirus and anti-spyware programs on individual computers and your network servers regularly
- Make it mandatory for your employees to use strong passwords and avoid simple passwords that are easy to guess.
- Educate employees on the importance of following security protocols and best practices.
- Use a firewall to protect your computer from hacker attacks when it’s connected to the internet.
- Use an intrusion detection system to direct network breaches when they occur.
- Create a “culture of security“ by implementing a regular schedule of employee training. Keep updating them as you find out about new risks and vulnerabilities.
- Find out if you use wireless devices like inventory scanners or cell phones to connect to your computer network or to transmit sensitive information. If yes, consider limiting the number of users who can use a wireless connection to access your computer network. You can also limit the number of wireless devices that can connect to your network.
- Avoid storing sensitive consumer data on any computer or laptop with an Internet connection unless it’s absolutely necessary for conducting your business.