What is Data Security?

Amber Boehm - September 19, 2023

Data security defined

Data security is the practice of protecting digital data from unauthorized access, use or disclosure in a manner consistent with an organization’s risk strategy. It also includes protecting data from disruption, modification or destruction.

Data is the lifeblood of every organization and essential to a company’s success so its protection is a critical issue for organizations of all sizes. Data security is key to maintaining the confidentiality, integrity and availability of an organization’s data. By implementing strong data security measures, organizations can help protect their valuable assets, meet relevant compliance requirements and maintain customer trust in the company’s brand.

With the topic of safeguarding data, two concepts — data security and data privacy — sometimes get mixed up or used interchangeably. They are separate concepts but work in tandem with one another. To better understand how they work together, it can be helpful to define them along with data protection.

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Data security vs privacy vs protection

Data security refers specifically to measures taken to prevent unauthorized access from malware or third parties that could manipulate data. These measures are part of the entire data protection process. They ensure integrity of the data within the organization in a way that is consistent with the organization’s risk strategy.

Data privacy is the control over who gets to see an organization’s personal or confidential information like credit card numbers, a customer list or the company’s bank statements. It also includes controlling what they are authorized to do with the information after they have accessed it.

Data protection is the process that involves policies, procedures and technologies used to secure data from unauthorized access, alteration or destruction. This process ultimately ensures data security and data privacy.

Importance of data security

Digital transformation has made organizations rethink the way they operate and engage with customers. In turn, the resulting exponential growth in data has driven the imperative for data security where companies adopt tools and practices that better ensure the safety and integrity of their data — and that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Data security has become even more crucial in recent years with the wide adoption of remote work, expanding tech stacks and budget concerns that often leave security teams overtaxed and understaffed. In addition, compliance heightens the importance of ensuring good data security practices, as the breadth of regional and global compliance mandates is consistently being updated and expanded.

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Benefits of data security

An organization’s data is its crown jewels. It helps drive the company’s performance to innovate and develop new products and services, meet new market opportunities and deliver high-quality customer service. Given its importance — and the reality that there are many threats to company data — organizations need to adopt good data security practices.

Keeping information safeData security keeps the company’s data safe. It’s a good business practice and demonstrates an organization is a good steward that acts responsibly in handling confidential and customer data.
Maintaining brand trustCustomers need to have confidence the organization is keeping their data safe. If an organization has experienced a data breach and consumers don’t feel safe with their personal information in its hands, they will refuse to provide it. In fact, 60% of U.S. consumers are less likely to work with a brand that has suffered a data breach, and 90% believe poor vendor security will negatively impact their lives in 2023.
Gaining a competitive edgeProtecting a company’s information is a crucial part of running the business and carving out a competitive edge. Indeed, 21% of consumers say they’d switch to a competing brand following a vendor data breach. Building a reputation of keeping customer data safe not only helps a company preserve its customer base but also helps attract new customers who want to move away from a competing brand that experienced a breach.
Preventing a financial lossWith an estimated $4.45 million USD average global cost per breach in 2023, there’s a growing concern about the costs associated with data breaches. By investing in data security, businesses can mitigate the risk of financial losses, such as the cost of paying a ransom, lost revenue from interrupted business operations, incident response expenses, legal fees and regulatory fines.

Threats to an organization’s data

In today’s digital world, the threat of cyberattacks is constant. Companies continuously face high volumes of cyberattacks that can compromise their data and lead to financial losses. And it’s not just external threats that companies need to worry about — internal threats such as employee negligence or malicious actors can also lead to data breaches and other security issues. Some of the many threats to a company’s data include:

Accidental exposureIn the course of using company data, it only takes one minor incident like clicking on a malicious email attachment, losing a device or making a human error to cause a major issue.
Social engineeringSocial engineering is a prevalent threat, comprising 74% of breaches. Social engineering is a popular tactic because it’s often easier for cybercriminals to convince an unsuspecting employee to take a desired action than it is to hack into a company’s network.
Insider threatsInternal threats are typically current or former employees, contractors or partners with authorized access to the company’s network. Insiders can have non-malicious intent, accidentally exposing data through negligence. They can also pose malicious threats via abuse of their privileged access and act maliciously for gain, such as espionage, fraud, intellectual property theft or sabotage.
MalwareMalware is any program or code that is created with the intent to do harm to a computer, network or server. Malware encompasses many subsets such as ransomware, trojans, spyware, viruses and any other type of attack that leverages software in a malicious way.
RansomwareRansomware is a major and growing threat to data, contributing to 25% of data breaches in 2022. Cyber criminals use ransomware attacks to infect devices and encrypt data. Then, the attacker threatens to expose the data unless the organization pays a ransom fee in order to receive the decryption key.
Cloud data storageAs organizations leverage the benefits of the cloud, data gets moved and stored in the cloud. Embracing the cloud widens the attack surface, and when cloud data is left unprotected, the door is open for adversaries to take advantage.

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Key components of a data security solution

Speed, volume and sophistication of threat actors combined with a fast-expanding threat surface mean that organizations need to have strong security measures in place to keep their data as secure as possible. Here are ten key data security components that organizations can implement to improve their security posture and protect their high-value and sensitive data.

Access control

Data access control helps regulate employee access to files in an organization, making it easy for IT teams to govern who is allowed access to which data. Applying the principle of least privilege (POLP) is the best-practice approach for access control where employees only have the minimum access privileges to data that’s necessary for them to perform a specific job or task — and nothing more.

Cloud data security

Cloud security is a collection of technologies, policies, services, and security controls to protect an organization’s sensitive data, applications, and environments in cloud computing systems. Cloud security should be an integral part of an organization’s cybersecurity strategy to ensure the privacy and protection of data across cloud environments.

Data loss prevention (DLP)

DLP is an overall security strategy that focuses on detecting and preventing the loss, leakage or misuse of an organization’s data while the data is in use, in motion and at rest. DLP is also a way for companies to classify business critical information and ensure the company’s data policies comply with relevant regulations.

Email security

Email security is important for protecting an organization’s digital information. It is the process of protecting a company’s email accounts, content and communication against unauthorized access, loss or compromise. This helps protect data from malicious attacks such as phishing and hacking. Email security also helps ensure emails are delivered securely and confidential information is not exposed to unauthorized individuals.

Key management

Key management secures cryptographic keys by managing their generation, exchange, storage, deletion and updating. This keeps sensitive data secure and prevents unauthorized access. Key management also ensures all users have access to the right keys at the right time. This helps organizations maintain control over their data and ensure only authorized personnel can access it. With key management, companies can also track who has accessed which keys and when.

Governance, risk and compliance (GRC)

GRC is a set of policies and processes that a company uses to achieve its business goals while managing risks and meeting relevant regulatory requirements. GRC helps a company’s IT team align with business objectives and ensures all stakeholders are aware of their individual responsibilities. With GRC in place, companies can ensure they are adhering to industry best practices and compliance mandates while minimizing risks associated with their operations.

Password Hygiene

Password hygiene helps keep a company’s accounts and data safe from cybercriminals. It involves selecting, managing and maintaining good password practices to protect an organization’s accounts and data. To ensure maximum security, it is important to use unique and strong passwords for all online accounts, so if one password gets compromised, the others remain secure.

Authentication and authorization

Authentication and authorization are used to control access to computer resources (and the data on those computers). By using authentication and authorization tools, organizations can ensure only authorized users have access to the resources they need while protecting the data from being misused or stolen. They also help monitor user activity and ensure compliance with organizational policies and procedures.

Zero trust

Zero Trust in simple terms is “trust no one, always verify.”This security framework requiries all users, whether inside or outside the organization’s network, to be authenticated, authorized and continuously validated for security configuration and posture before being granted or keeping access to applications and data. Zero Trust assumes that there is no traditional network edge — networks can be on-premises, in the cloud, or a combination, and resources and workers can be anywhere.

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Common types of data security

Data security technologies all directly touch an organization’s data to help the organization understand three key aspects:

  • Knowing where data is located and which data is sensitive
  • Controlling data movement and using data-centric controls that protect data wherever it is located
  • Enabling least privilege access and use to best protect data

Some of the most common types of data security include encryption, data masking, data erasure and data resiliency.

Encryption conceals information by converting it so that it appears to be random data — like a secret code — that hides its true meaning. Encryption leverages advanced algorithms to encode the data, making it meaningless to any user who does not have the key. Authorized users leverage the key to decode the data, transforming the concealed information back into a readable format.

Data masking

Data masking enables organizations to protect sensitive information and keep it private by making it unrecognizable but still usable. Data masking hides data by obscuring and replacing specific letters or numbers, which makes the data useless to an attacker while still being usable by authorized personnel.

Data erasure

When an organization no longer requires a particular data set, data erasure ensures the data is permanently removed from the systems. By overwriting the data on the storage device, the data is rendered irrecoverable and data sanitization is achieved.

Data resiliency

Data resiliency is the process of creating backup copies of digital data and other business information so an organization can recover the data in case it’s damaged, deleted or stolen during a data breach. Data backups are vital to an organization’s resiliency and enable it to quickly recover during a natural disaster or cyberattack.

Data security best practices

The data security market includes a wide range of technologies and best practices for protecting digital data throughout its life cycle. This life cycle spans creation to destruction and includes the different layers of hardware, software, technology and platform. It also includes an organization’s operational policies and procedures. Here are some of the most common data security best practices:

  1. Authenticate identities: Follow identity and access management procedures such as using multi-factor authentication (MFA) to confirm each user’s identity and protect data from unauthorized access.
  2. Enforce the principle of least privilege (POLP): Also known as the principle of “least-privilege access,” POLP ensures your data stays secure from unauthorized users by providing access only to those who need it to operate. Otherwise, they will be denied access.
  3. Consistently back up your data: Data backups are an essential component of data security to ensure you have copies of your data to continue regular operations with minimal interruptions. This ensures no data is lost.
  4. Implement endpoint security: Organizations should implement a comprehensive solution that protects endpoints through detection and response capabilities to mitigate risks and prevent cyberattacks that could compromise your data.
  5. Train your employees: A strong security strategy is useless if employees and other stakeholders are not aware of what the policies are or the best practices to follow to ensure they stay protected. Implement a cybersecurity training program to educate employees about the most common ways adversaries try to get their data and the negative impacts data loss could have on the organization and in their personal lives.
  6. Have a clearly defined policy: Employees should be able to understand and follow security policies, including what role each user has in the case of an incident and what types of data/resources each user has access to.
  7. Secure all connected devices: Laptops and cellphones are some of the most common attack vectors for adversaries to gain access to sensitive data. In addition, many Internet of Things (IoT) devices might also be connected to your network, such as printers, cameras, bluetooth devices and more. Securing IoT devices is an essential part of data security.
  8. Strengthen physical and cloud security: Whether your data is stored on-premises or in the cloud, adequate security measures are needed to protect data from adversaries. Physical protection includes protection from intruders and also from fire and water hazards and natural disasters. If your data is stored in the cloud, have cloud security measures in place.

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Key frameworks to keep data secure

Over the past several decades, global and regional data protection regulations have been implemented to address privacy issues stemming from the exponential growth in data collected about individuals — and the compliance landscape continues to expand and change rapidly.

The following are some of the main data privacy regulations that organizations should consider when thinking about the security of their data in the context of compliance requirements:

  • General Data Protection and Regulation (GDPR)
  • ISO/IEC 27001
  • California Consumer Protection Act (CCPA)
  • Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
  • Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX)
  • Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS)

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Amber Boehm is a Director of Product Marketing for Data Detection and Response at CrowdStrike and based in Seattle, Washington.