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Sensitive Data Discovery: The First Step in Data Breach Protection

Users are tired of hearing about data breaches that put their sensitive information at risk.

Reports show that cybercriminals stole 6.41 million records in the first quarter of 2023 alone.

From medical data to passwords and even DNA information, hackers have stolen a lot of sensitive information in 2023.

When users hand over their data to companies, they consider it safely stored, heavily encrypted, and not kept longer than it has to be—especially sensitive information.

In reality, though, many businesses don’t know where sensitive data resides within their systems or who has access to it at all times.

Where can companies start to protect their most valuable asset—private data?

The first step is getting a sense of the data you have in your possession.

What makes sensitive data discovery challenging, and how should you approach it as a company responsible for keeping personal, sensitive, or confidential data safe from hackers?

Companies Don’t Know Where Their Critical Data Is

Almost 50% of companies say that they don’t know where their sensitive and confidential data is stored within their system.

Without knowing where the data is held, they can’t classify it or know who is accessing it at all times. That is necessary to detect suspicious logins or access to databases before the bad actor steals, encrypts, or leaks important information.

That is, locating sensitive information is the first step to protecting important documents and files from being compromised in a data breach.

After sensitive data discovery, you set the groundwork for the classification of data and can set the rules that govern who can access your databases.

Sensitive Data Resides in Several Locations

One thing that decreases the visibility of their data repositories is that, for most companies, sensitive data is scattered across many locations.

Where does the majority of sensitive data reside?

According to Statista, 81% of companies keep their sensitive data in cloud-based files such as Google Drive, 80% keep them in an email, 70% said they store them in versatile devices (PCs, laptops), 61% disclosed that their data is kept within chat services (e.g., MS Teams), and 50% use GitHub repositories.

On one hand, not keeping all of the data in a single place means that one vulnerability is less likely to result in a major data breach. On the other hand, not all of the mentioned locations follow equally strong security practices.

The problem is that the data is scattered within the complex multi-cloud infrastructures of businesses, on-premises, or hybrid environments. Companies also keep the files that are saved in different forms—unstructured, semi-structured, and structured.

Sensitive Data Discovery Solutions

It’s evident that companies store a lot of sensitive data that can be stolen but have poor visibility of their ever-growing databases.

Sensitive data is not merely stored and left as is. It’s often used regularly and transferred from one point of the network to the next. Data saved in different forms is constantly being added, changed, and used.

What kind of data is saved and where will depend on the type of industry the company belongs to. Regardless, you have to know which information or files you have as well as who has access to it.

For many companies that have poor data tracking, the problem is that they’ve already stored a lot of data and now find it difficult to classify and uncover all of it within their infrastructure.

Having an automated tool that can identify the sensitive information within your system is a necessity.

The solution should also help you do that at all times to enable continually managing data security. Regardless of the type, it should:

  • Rely on machine learning and algorithms for data discovery
  • Represent findings in a clear way
  • Help you meet data privacy policies

Classification of Discovered Data

Once the data is uncovered, it has to be classified. Data that hackers are interested in the most is that of a personal, sensitive, and confidential nature.

Classification of the data means that you know:

  • What kind of data do you keep
  • Who has access to data
  • Where is that data within your infrastructure

The classification process has to keep up with data discovery continually. After it is found within the infrastructure, it has to be classified right away, too. For the company, this increases visibility into the attack surface and important databases.

Restricting Access to Discovered Sensitive Files

Not every employee needs access to sensitive information that is stored within the infrastructure of the business.

To reduce the risk of data breaches, companies set role-based access—giving the employees access to only those parts of the infrastructure they need for work.

Even with the state of the art security, data breaches can still happen due to vulnerabilities and exploits that are beyond the control of cyber security tools—such as phishing or poor password practices.

Also, don’t forget to regularly update the access privileges to govern who has access to sensitive data. That is, do so when someone’s role changes or if they’re no longer working in the company.

Preventing Breaches With Sensitive Data Discovery

Sensitive data discovery is the first and most critical protection step before the documents are classified and the access controls are set.

It starts off the data management process and has to be done at all times. Most solutions are automated and rely on AI to enforce the discovery process 24/7.

Discovering important data and its classification are critical actions for data security because they ensure that you get a continual overview of all of the data you have.

You can’t protect what you can’t see.

When done right, a proper, trusted data discovery and classification tool can help you avoid expensive data breaches and negative audits.

By Evan Morris, Network Security Manager

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